Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Hit keeps coming

The Hit (1984) is better than neo-noir. It is neo-proto-noir. Rather than going back to Double Indemnity and Out of the Past for its stylistic references, it has gone straight back to the origin of hard-boiled fiction, all the way to Hemingway. Pretty good for a bunch of lime eaters. It's not unprecedented. Harold Pinter's first full-length play The Birthday Party is like a theatrical variation on Hemingway's The Killers. The film might be said to belong to the non-existent genre of art-house gangster movies (Sexy Beast, Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday might be other candidates.) Director Stephen Frears would go on to make The Grifters, which is the hardest boiled hard-boiled movie ever made, a movie with pure ice in its veins. Then he would make The Queen. Go figure.

The plot: Terence Stamp was an informer. John Hurt is sent to go get him. Tim Roth (in his movie debut) is the driver. They pick him up in Spain to take him to Paris. The only thing missing is for Roth to keep calling Stamp "bright boy." Most of the film is a long drive across the Spanish desert, which makes it feel like one of those American pictures where they're driving across Mexico. The mood is aided by some Eric Clapton and a whole bunch of excellent flamenco.

Why should the Brits be so good at gangster flicks? This is a society that doesn't even have much truck with firearms. (Maybe that's one reason--it's easier in Britain to just hit someone in the face rather than shoot them.) And while The Hit may seem like Tarantino-lite, what separates these mugs from Quentin's fun cartoons is that they do not posture, quote or obsess on pop culture. These are more life-and-death kind of guys, mostly death.

The thing that separates it from ordinary neo-noir is the talk. Or the lack of it. It's not attempting to comment on itself, as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Nobody waxes philosophical at great length. The movie just is. It's so confident it has Fernando Rey in a major role and he doesn't have one audible line in English. Swagger, that's what it is. Not sloppy, loudmouth swagger like John Gotti, but the confidence to just get on with business.

As Stamp says when he knows he is about to die: "It's just a moment. We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else... maybe. And it's as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?"

Friday, May 28, 2010

Stooges to the rescue

Though it's not really needed, Meet the Baron (1933) is further proof that the worst films can be made using the combination of the best talent, especially if there is no guidance. Credited writers on this film include Arthur Kober, Norman Krasna, and Herman J. Mankiewicz, all prestigious and successful writers--some even produced on Broadway. The director is Walter Lang, who made good musicals such as State Fair and The King and I and the producer is David O. Selznick of Gone With The Wind fame. Put them together in order to promote a second-tier radio comic, Jack Pearl and his character Baron Munchausen, (who faded from peak popularity within two years of the release of this movie) and you have a 70-minute time-filler whose best moments are provided by naked women (what else?) and The Three Stooges (really).

I am not one of those cases of arrested development who idolizes the Stooges. Sure, I grew up on them, but only because they were on TV during the witching hour after it was too dark to play outside and just before we sat up for dinner. But I never thought their comedy made any sense or was very funny, and have always preferred Laurel and Hardy and even Abbott and Costello as far as teams go.

As I've aged and seen more of their work, especially in support of other performers in feature films, I appreciate the precision and timing of their work as a team. Nobody mentions it, but the Stooges sing together very well--not as a joke, or to exhibit their characters, as L&H do, but as a matter of good music making. Their act, especially in their days with Ted Healy (as in Meet the Baron) was clearly partly improvisational, but they are always tight, picking up cues and moving deftly into place as needed. They were a well-oiled machine, and not as dependent on the silly sound effects devised for them at Columbia Pictures as they would appear to be. Moe in particular is a very skillful anchor man, keeping the act in constant motion, which makes up for the lack of character consistency or narrative logic in their routines. Even Edna May Oliver can smoothly dovetail her snooty old lady act with the Stooges.

By the way, this is the film with the sequence (see below) in which girls sing "Clean As A Whistle" while appearing to be naked behind curtains of water. The number doesn't end (how could it?) because they run out of water and send for the Stooges to solve the problem.

I mean, what are you going to do with a movie that can't even make Jimmy Durante funny?


An Everlasting Piece (2000) has the vague whiff of a film produced for tax reasons. It is hard to imagine that it aroused passion in anyone, other than its screenwriter-star, Barry McEvoy, who based it on incidents in his father's life. Director Barry Levinson continues to vie for "Most Erratic Track Record as a Director." Has anyone in our era made such fine films and such bombs side by side? Diner and Sphere? Avalon (a personal favorite) and Man of the Year (unwatchable)? Wag the Dog and Toys (one of the worst EVER)? Let me know if you can think of anyone else who works at such extremes. And some of his most celebrated work (Rain Man) isn't all that good, while lesser-known films (Young Sherlock Holmes) have their rewards.

One can see the attraction of the material for Levinson-- the protagonists are two man-boys (or is it boyos?) who stumble over a business opportunity which puts them in opposition to the prevailing authorities. As a Catholic and Protestant working together, they arouse suspicion both from the British military and the IRA, both of whom are potential antagonists and, as it turns out, potential customers.

But the two parts of the film--baldness and armed religious conflict--never gel into a cohesive unity, and come apart like a toupee whose sticky tape has worn out. And the inherent grimness of the setting edge the film into tastelessness, into which it falls on a fairly regular basis. Not to mention the Anglo-Irish propensity for scenes of redundant squabbling--don't we all have enough pointless arguments in our lives to not have to put up with them in real life? And there seems to be an assumption that, given much of the audience will be Irish, they will necessarily be drunk; therefore important plot points must be pronounced three times in a row very slowly. I'm not kidding. The idea that the two wig salesman will shave their heads to demonstrate the quality of their hair pieces is repeated THREE TIMES IN A ROW SLOWLY.

Or maybe it was just that the editor was drunk.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Actually, it's not...

It's Complicated (2009) appears to have been written and directed by Sonoma-Williams and dedicated to the proposition that 60-year-old women are likely to own successful businesses (which they don't have to spend any time running), have their children attend prestigious colleges without wondering how to pay for them, and have two well-heeled men chasing after them. And they say men have sick fantasies. (Yes, I know Meryl is supposed to be in her 50's, but I went to her high school and I know how old she is.) Writer-director Nancy Meyers continues to prove that she is the economy brand of the Nora Ephron franchise, with her characters suffering from mild body issues in place of Ephron's character's full-blown neuroses.

The film is pleasant, but no more and the only really remarkable thing about it is the skill and detail of Meryl Streep's acting, skill and detail she no longer applies to her celebrated character roles in films like Doubt and Julie & Julia. The latter have degenerated into vaudeville turns of tics and mannerisms. Streep's performance in Complicated is full of small realistic touches which are not in the service of a joke or a plot point, but simple pure characterization, revealing a character's insecurities, self-deprecation or indecision. Nonetheless, she is far less likely to be nominated for a piece like this than she is for playing an obvious gargoyle like in Devil Wears Prada.

John Krasinski is the film's secret weapon in the inconsequential role of the daughter's fiancee. Away We Go, which featured his best leading role so far, and was one of the best films of 2009--a film which gives you faith in the future of movies, virtually disappeared from everyone's mind by the time award season came around. Someday someone is going to realize that he is our new Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon and Tom Hanks and his goofy charm is going to drive some major films in years to come.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Needs brains

I don't know a lot about zombie films, but Night of the Living Dead is much funnier than Shaun of the Dead. So is Schindler's List, for that matter.

The classic George Romero zombie film is limited to begin with (which is what made 28 Days Later such a breath of fresh air). You can run away from them (easy) or shoot them in the head (easy if you have a gun). You can also hit them with a shovel, but that yields mixed results. It's really just sort of a stalling action.

Shaun of the Dead runs into a dead end as soon as possible and just stays there. A pity, because it starts off with a clever visual-satirical note as we see typical Londoners on their way to work, looking as if they had already become zombies. The point is made lightly, but it is never built upon, or even returned to. The film briefly enjoys the talents of Bill Nighy, but he dies too soon to save the film, and soon it devolves into a bunch of people screaming at each other about what they should do next. The English seem to think this is funny. It started back with Genevieve in 1953, which is celebrated as one of those little British gems of the 50s, but in fact is mind-numbingly tedious, since it consists almost entire of squabbling.

I'll give you that an argument can be funny. It can be a witty argument, or even stupid, as in the Monty Python "Argument Clinic" sketch. But when it is circular, with everyone talking at cross-purposes, not responding to each other but shouting endlessly past each other--well, it's no fun in real life and it's worse to find it in an entertainment.

I sought out the film because I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of Zombieland so much. But the humans in Zombieland are smart and competent and confident, and their mistakes are interesting and surprising, and their methods of overcoming the mistakes ingenious and witty in their own way. The characters in Shaun are yobbos from start to finish, never clever and never funny. It is the product of the over-elevation of the sketch comedy group which has been the plague of comedy in this decade, in which 7-minute ideas are played out for 102 minutes.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Another flawed father

The fleet tempo at which The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) begins reminds me of nothing so much as Truffaut's narration in Jules and Jim. It says: "We're not going to fool around with excessive explanations, background and sentiment. Let's get right to the facts you need to know."

The result is a film not exclusively for adults, but should only be seen by children if they are accompanied by their adults. Like most Wes Anderson movies, Mr. Fox is about a complicated family in which bright but damaged children learn from the mistakes of the adults around them. George Clooney's Mr. Fox joins the pantheon with Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou of flawed but loveable father figures. The brisk casual delivery is a welcome contrast from the overemphatic acting found in so much animation, especially stop motion, which everyone seems to think needs "help" in order to get over.

One of the lessons of The Simpsons was that animation can provide a greater density of information than live action because of the speed with which characters can move, speak, change locations, initiate and terminate actions. Unlike us clunky humans with our real-world bodies dealing with gravity and friction, animated characters can act as quickly as thought itself. This permits them to try and fail more rapidly, and failure has less serious consequences, especially for characters like Wile E. Coyote, who has an impressive ability to heal himself.

I had to confess I was skeptical that a director of conventional films, like Wes Anderson, could put more of a mark on an animated film than its animation director (Tim Burton is an obvious exception, but that is because of his visual design skills which dominate Nightmare Before Christmas more than the movement and performances). But I was wrong. Mr. Fox is much more like other Anderson films than it is like other animated films. Still, it is pretty family-friendly, especially if your kids are sharp to begin with. (I especially like the all-purpose deleted expletive "cuss", as in "I can't stand that cussing guy." Very useful.)

With its lack of songs, excessive moralizing and inane slapstick, it is the least boring animated film in a long, long time. And it still has a good lesson. You can make mistakes and survive them. And love keeps families together. OK, it's not brilliant, but the moral of Hamlet is "make up your mind," so let's agree that moral lessons aren't important to the quality of a work. But it will help justify letting children watch this cartoon with you.

Stress points

Seeing the fine Danish film Brødre (2004) made me feel depressed about Jim Sheridan's career status that he felt compelled to take on such a pointless exercise as directing the American scene-for-scene remake Brothers. One measure of the level of misfire is list some of the differences between the two films:

1. In Brødre, the officer brother briefs his men on their mission and assures them it is acceptable to be afraid.

2. Brødre has scenes and dialogue which explain why and how the younger brother was in prison and his feelings about what he did and who he hurt.

3. In Brødre, the protagonist truly gets to know the man he feels to compelled to kill later.

4. Connie Nielsen and Ulrich Thomsen are simply more believable as the parents of two young girls than Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire, who still look they just came back from the prom. Not their fault, but...

5. Brødre makes it clear that the father's breakdown has to do with the stress and guilt over what he did in the war than it has to do with sexual jealousy. That is just a premise. In the remake, Maguire's outburst, driven as it seems to be by jealousy makes even less sense because Gyllenhall and Portman have very little chemistry between them.

6. Since Denmark hasn't much of a film industry, the children don't seem so much like professional actors.

Brødre has a clear visual design, with some hypnotic transitions using a thrumming music score and a montage of different types of blue eyes. (I guess there are some brown-eyed Danes, but you couldn't prove it from this film.)

The entire American version feels as though it were lurching from plot point to plot point without any real conviction, because what we have is a copy. As
Brødre clearly comes from the writer and director's hearts, it is real and honest and truly felt; whereas Brothers feels as though it is going through the motions. Jim Sheridan has made wonderfully honest personal films himself, and he has no more business remaking Brødre than Marc Forster should be remaking In America.

The strange thing is that, given the difficult painful story told in
Brødre and Brothers, the original feels more hopeful, more resolved, with more possibility of recovering a decent future, than the remake which starts "down" and stays down.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why is Iron Man 2 so unsatisfying?

1. Tony Stark is a jerk. Supposedly he learns and grows over the course of the movie and stops being a jerk. I didn't notice that part. Jerk through and through.

2. I don't care whether he keeps the Iron Man suit or gives it away to the government. Don't care. Never told why I should care.

3. Superpowers which belong to a suit, not a person, are stupid. Jackie Chan proved that in spades in a much cheaper movie which was deliberately aimed at undemanding children.

4. Pepper is annoying. Why does she act like an annoying ex-gf when she hasn't ever real been a gf? And who wants a gf who acts the 3rd-grade teacher you didn't like?

5. No threat to us walking-around people. The whole picture revolves around a pissing match between two jerks, Tony and the character played by Sam Rockwell. Superheroes are supposed to save us, the people, not maintain their stock price.

6. Only one slightly interesting action scene, the heavily effect-ridden martial arts sequence with Scarlett and her double. The stutter-frame technique made me worry that I was having a stroke.

7. Fights between two guys in super suits are arbitrary and boring. Plus, nobody goes eyeball-to-eyeball. So...nothing.

8. Other than pointing the camera at Vince Vaughn's face, Jon Favreau has no talent for visual humor whatsoever. Can't stage, can't time it, can't shoot it, and mostly forgets to include it. Unless you find yards of broken glass and plaster hilarious.

9. They forgot to give Don Cheadle a character. Or was he trying to portray Ralph Ellison's Invisible (Black) Man?

10. Mickey Rourke. That's it. Mickey ugly-damned-deformed-burn-victim Rourke. Yecch. And his Russian accent sucks. And what the hell is that thing on his upper lip? And why does it change from shot to shot?

Clearly, if you want an actor who can play an obnoxious jerk who transforms into a charming rogue, you hire Robert Downey, Jr. one of the greatest actors in the world today. But then you give him something interesting and decent to do. His biggest accomplishment: saving his own life with Science. Again, no involvement for the audience. No threat to the world at large, no stakes for anyone in the audience, except for which millionaire to root for.

In the mood I'm in, I only want to see movies where millionaires die slowly. After torture.

Iron Man: Not super. Not a hero. Next!

Warming up in the bullpen

Lee Daniels has two great assets as a director, a poetic, at times spellbinding visual sense and an awe-inspiring rolodex. Daniels is famous today (and deserves to be) for Precious. Shadowboxer (2006), his first feature release has a marvelous assurance for such a strange film, beginning with its completely odd cast.

Daniels first made his mark as a producer, most notably of Monster's Ball, which leads one to wonder if his knack for offbeat casting is not opportunistic. One would not ordinarily think of Helen Mirren as a hitman as she plays in Shadowboxer, but would think of her for the role for which she was cast in Precious, an acid-tongued social worker. Except that Mirren wasn't available, so Daniels cast Mariah Carey. He seems to have a crazy, fling-it-against-the-wall attitude toward casting which so far has paid off.

Mirren's consort is Cuba Gooding, Jr. Their doctor (to patch them up from assassination-related injuries) is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his girl friend, called "Precious" is played by Mo'Nique. The ease with which these actors, who presumably all share Daniels as a mutual friend belies the awkwardness of the gathering. The whole thing is bound with a dream-like visual style, linked by close-ups of eyes and bound together with an eclectic score by Mario Grigorov (although I also detected some Piazzolla tangos as well).

The story is preposterous, but has a truth of a fable. I don't know about anyone else, but seeing Shadowboxer, I would have given him the money to make Precious. IMDb lists his future projects as including something called Selma as well as Miss Saigon. I'd like to see those.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Picture this

One way of increasing your chances of making a good movie: point your camera at Armin Mueller-Stahl. There is a category of actor such including Raimu, Humphrey Bogart, Jean Gabin, Toshiro Mifune, Anna Magnani, Gary Cooper, who project their presence, their essence, even when completely in repose. You'll notice a preponderance of non-English-speaking actors in this list, because they are not dependent on dialogue to convey meaning and feeling. As demonstrated in Avalon, and Music Box and Eastern Promises, Mueller-Stahl belongs in that category.

Local Color (2008) is intended to be the Karate Kid of painting. The reportedly autobiographical script by director George Gallo evidently lured Mueller-Stahl out of retirement, possibly because of his own devotion to painting. He's given a great deal of talking to do, and a lot of it is claptrap about the nature of or the meaning of art. There are a lot of cheap shots at abstract expressionists, as though their art was false.

Let's think about how "real" and "natural" representational art is. Representational art requires that the eye examine a flat piece of canvas with colored oil on it, decipher those colors spread on a flat surface and figure out a comparison to real-world three-dimensional objects. Other animals can't do that, because representational art requires the interpretation of signs and symbols. Abstract expressionism requires no interpretation. It's a bunch of sploshes--you like or you don't. But you don't have to decide whether they look like a tree. That's an intellectual construct.

The fact is, the only completely direct and natural art is music, which does not attempt to represent anything and does not use symbols or signals. Each form of music has conventions, but that is a way of dealing with infinite choice. Every other form of music has to pass through the thinking part of the brain on the way to the feeling. Music goes straight to feeling. Was and is the greatest art.

Back to film. The good news is that digital cinematography has reached the point that the colors in the film are very well represented, although I would recommend a large-format widescreen display, because one is called on to see all the colors within the object--which is the definition of "local color." Clever, heh?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Tied up and down

It's hard to believe that Serious Moonlight (2009) was written as an original screenplay, because its physical and emotional landscape has the cramped feeling of a low-grade off-Broadway play. It's not just that it's in one room, it's that it harps on one note. What do you make of a film which has one of its two major characters duct-taped to a toilet for three-quarters of its running time? The whole film seems to have been duct-taped to a toilet.

There is a place for minimalist cinema. Hitchcock and Chaplin both engaged in this--Chaplin in One A.M., a solo turn and Hitchcock in Lifeboat and Rope, which have restricted settings and techniques. Often, the only way to adapt a play which is about confinement is to preserve that confinement, such as Extremities, Dial M for Murder or Wait Until Dark.

This story, which starts as one type of hostage story and then seems to turn into another, has no irrefutable reason that it takes place in the bathroom, and the idea that one character has been trussed up in such a way that he may relieve himself at any time (although not clean himself afterward) makes the whole thing thoroughly repellent.

It's a shame, because the new-model Meg Ryan, as seen in films such as In The Cut and The Deal, burnt but not bitter, angrier and more ironic than her younger self, is quite engaging. And the more recent Tim Hutton, with the swagger and confidence of the man that he is today, as contrasted with the boy we remember from Ordinary People (which, after all, was 30 years ago) is also good company. But though the script by the late Adrienne Shelley (Waitress) has quirks and twists, none of them make the film pleasant or funny.

Which leaves one to wonder whether Shelley directing her own work could have retrieved it from the brink.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mystery or puzzle?

Mystery Street (1950) is a film noir set-up with a documentary procedural resolution. The film begins with the best noir credentials: low-key lighting, seedy settings, a woman who's no better than she should be, a hapless fall guy who's briefly fingered for a crime he didn't commit, and John Alton behind the camera to certify the film's noir cred. One image which appears early in the story is virtually iconic: a killer whose face is unseen begins to remove his female victim's body from the car in which he has shot her. Another car starts to come around the bend--we see its headlights start to sweep around. The killer picks up the woman's limp body and drapes it around himself as if they were in the throes of passion. Sex and death are always intertwined in film noir, but rarely so literally. In a moment, that body is hoisted over the killer's shoulders and the victim's lovely arms sway as he carries her off in a virtual pas de deux of death.

Then the film begins another strain which was popular with crime film of the postwar era, the Louis deRochement-location shot-documentary-style procedural. We are treated to Boston backgrounds (which are kind of fun to see 60 years later), a Harvard professor introducing us to the concept of a forensic lab and Ricardo Montalban as an eager-beaver cop, without any noir ambiguities, or even any backstory (except that he comes from a Portuguese neighborhood, hence his Mexican accent).

Even though this material echoes present-day television programming, some of it must have been startling to a 1950 audience, such as the unflinching display of partial skeletal material. And there is a terrifically chilling image as the technicians project an image of the skull they have found behind the pictures of possible victims for identification purposes. Then comes the moment (pictured at right) when the skull lines up perfectly with Jan Sterling's face and we have not only put a name to the victim, but seeing death in life quite literally.

Curiously, much of the plot turns around a man who is wrongly accused and the wife who wants to see him exonerated. But the film turns its back on him early on (and the wife, who is the nominal lead only enters the film after the halfway point and only has a few scenes and not any major emotional ones) in favor of the investigation. It is almost as if the film is saying, 'This is MGM. We're not going to roll around in miserly like those grubby little RKO and independent movies. We're going to show that the police are good and hard-working and well-meaning and will find the truth." As is usual, films that best serve their audience in their own time are the least likely to find a foothold in posterity.

Why doesn't The Godfather: Part III work?

There is little debate that The Godfather: Part III (1990) is not of equal stature with its predecessors, and many contend that it is not worthy to be considered part of a trilogy, but merely a commercially-drive appendage to a brilliant diptych consisting of the first film and Part II. But looking at it again for the first time in 20 years, it would have been considered a pretty fine film if it had not borne the same name as two undisputed classics.

The conception is fine, and a logical complement to what has gone before, especially when one considers Coppola's original intended title, The Death of Michael Corleone. The film concerns Michael's desire to atone and bring peace to his life. He is trying to shift his business into legitimate pursuits and reconcile with his family, and particularly to make peace with his ex-wife, Kay. To that end, he bestows his blessing on his son's career choice as an opera singer, although he considers it odd and risky. That thread pays off beautifully with the final sequence being intercut with a performance of Cavelleria Rusticana, which not only provides an internal counterpoint with its Sicilian-set story of betrayal and vendetta, but an outer echo with the baptism scene which concluded The Godfather.

What works less well is the idea of moving up via using connections through the Vatican Bank. Clearly the notion was that Michael moves away from organized crime in the higher reaches of finance, and find they have the same morality and modus operandi as the Mob. And it was logical that Michael would have such connections, plus Puzo and Coppola had some real-life scandals connected to the Vatican to base the story on, just as the first two films echoed real-life legends and events.

Problem is--who cares about the Vatican bank? They're all foreign and mysterious and weird and they don't seem respectable to Americans under the best of circumstances. So the whole "Credit Immobilier" plot seemed confusing, murky and pointless. Now that we are all a little smarter about international finance and credit, it makes a little more sense, but it still has no emotional impact. European businessmen are corrupt? Pass me another Cinzano.

Of course--there's the problem. At what institution would we be shocked to find corruption? Cynicism, borne of real events, has drowned our capacity to be shocked.

The most common criticism of Part III is the casting and the acting of Sofia Coppola. Actually Francis Coppola puts his finger on the problem in his commentary track--it's her flat California accent. Young people in California seem to speak with no resonance and their vowels spread and adenoidal. Sofia's face, however, is perfect. Beautiful, but flawed in that mysterious Mediterranean way. If she had cultivated a deeper tone and covered her vowels, she might have pulled it off. As it is, her scenes with Andy Garcia (as contrasted with those with Pacino) are really very good, leading one to wonder if Garcia did not pull her aside on his own and rehearse scenes with her. She is remarkably more at ease and fluid with Garcia than anywhere else in the film.

And of course, the finale is perfect. Coppola credits Murch with removing the sound of Pacino's scream from the soundtrack, and there should be a special Oscar just for that. In fact, the restoration of production sound seems like a mistake. Pacino's actual scream is much smaller, more specific to a person from a particular place, and thus loses the power of the silent scream, which is the scream of all fathers everywhere in the world that ever lost a beloved daughter. For a moment the universality and expressive power of the silent film is rediscovered and celebrated, and I for one regret the clunky return to earth that follows.

Was the final shot of Michael dying (and dropping the obligatory orange) put in to try and dissuade Paramount from making any more Godfather movies? How much you want to bet that they make a deal for the next one on the trip back from Coppola's funeral?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Power couple

There is plenty of comment available online as to the historical accuracy of The Young Victoria (2009) or its qualities as a romance. I just want to briefly note that when it comes to trying to depict the intoxication of infatuation, so many filmmakers turn to the vocabulary of Max Ophuls.

Ophuls is, if nothing else, the master of the moving camera, mixing theatrical trickery with camera choreography. Young Victoria uses two marvelous Ophuls-like devices in a single sequence, the pivotal meeting of Victoria and her true love, Albert. First, you have to forget Victoria as the squatting humorless priggish widow one connects with the word "Victorian." Young Victoria (and this is according to my readings in history, and not just this admittedly romantic film) was a lovely young woman ready to be in love.

Victoria enters the sumptuous ballroom in a ball gown suitable for a Cinderella and is literally transported across the room toward her love. That is, without moving her feet, she sweeps toward us and toward her love, floating into a close-up--all before we even see the beloved, Albert. They join hands and dance, and as their faces and bodies grow close, the sound begins to echo and repeat into a chamber, like the dizziness you feel when you know your life is changing in that very instant. It is utterly enchanting, and carries the film through a certain amount of 19th century political positioning chatter. (There is even discussion of tariffs, which has to raise a giggle with anyone who has seen The Deal.)

The film is one of the finest demonstration of the creative use of shallow focus and the rack-focus shot. Film critics love deep focus, possibly because it was generally the exception in 35mm cinematography and mise-en-scene, and it does permit the actor to control the pace and energy of a scene, rather than the director and the editor. As the use of HD Video increases, the use of deep focus is increasing, as it is much easier to execute in digital. But shallow focus has its uses and is a uniquely cinematic tool to direct the audience's attention with precision. Thus cinematographers shooting in HD often emulate 35mm and adapt the lens so as to shorten the depth of field.

I recently saw a good example of how depth of field can be misused in the film Local Color, which I will be writing about soon. A very young man walks into frame standing behind a woman he is attracted to, but who is a bit older and who is recalling the tragic loss of her child. Although the young man is attracted to this woman, given the difference in their life experience and the emotions she is feeling at that moment, a romantic overture would be completely inappropriate and probably out of character for this sensitive young man. But a faulty choice of a long lens makes it look as though he is inches behind her or perhaps even less. Only when the scene cuts to an alternate angle one can see they are actually separated by several feet. It is possible that the director made that choice of a long lens deliberately to create an ambiguity, but if that's true it was a tonal error rather than a technical one, but an error nonetheless.

The result of director Jean-Marc Vallee's photographic choices is to convert the usual stuffy politics and hand-kissing that goes on in these movies into a story of the joining of two souls that is, if you understand the nature of true romance--not the soupy Hollywood version--a rather sexy story.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Burden of truth

Costa-Gavras's films have to be approached as socio-political documents before considering them as aesthetic objects. Amen.* (2002) seems sets out to confound the truism that the truth will make you free. Newly minted SS Officer Kurt Gerstein is a first-hand witness at a dry run for the Final Solution and is determined as a Christian to make it public knowledge, confident that the German people will put a stop to it, as they stopped execution of the mentally disabled. Unable to get an audience with Germans, he stumbles over a connection to the highest powers in the Vatican, who also turn a deaf ear.

As an aesthetic object the film is a perfect demonstration of how filmmakers discard the strength of the material they have acquired and fail to substitute anything as powerful. The material first appeared in Germany in the early 1960's as a play called The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth. It was a long documentary indictment of the Catholic Church and was vehemently denounced by the church, thus enhancing its fame and probably increasing the number of productions it received. (Would-be censors never learn this lesson.)

Though it was long and much of it was disputed, it was theatrical lightning, and was produced across the continent, and the Royal Shakespeare Company production came to New York to great acclaim and fanfare.

Costa-Gavras and his collaborators modified the story so that instead of the straight-on attack on the church, the film bounces between Gerstein's agony and the attempt of a young priest to get the attention of the Pontiff. This is exactly what happened to the play Amadeus by Anthony Shaffer. Where the play focused with laser beam intensity on the hatred and frustration of Salieri against Mozart, Forman's film brought in Mozart's father, Schickaneder, an elaborate physical production (in which Mozart is seen conducting an orchestra in a completely inauthentic manner), all of which diluted the film and made it utterly unclear what it was about except the fact that Tom Hulce can giggle like a fool.

Since the publication of The Deputy, Costa-Gavras claims that information has surfaced that tends to exonerate the Vatican and make its silence understandable if not excusable. I don't have the time or inclination to delve into the charges and counter-charges. All I know is that this is among the mildest and politest of Holocaust films. Admittedly it was a wise decision to play the initial gassing scene off-screen, with its horror reflected in Gerstein's eyes. But the rest of the film feels like earnest young officers and priests stomping around and telling their superiors, "I beg you to listen to me," while the elders blandly wave them away. The point is made quickly, and no new points or insights follow in the second hour.

Costa-Gavras is an exciting filmmaker when he's angry. Clearly, he's aging when the Holocaust doesn't seem to get him worked up anymore.
* The period is part of the title. I don't know why.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Love story

Hachi (2009) is one of those movies "they" don't make anymore. When I was a kid we had Old Yeller and Greyfriars Bobby and the Incredible Journey animals (the stark black-and-white original, not the goofy remake with movie star voiceovers). For a G-rated film like this, about loyalty and persistence, and greater values in life than the acquisition of money and status (the humans in the film are artists and teachers), it had to be a passion project.

And Lasse Hallstrom, still most famous for the immortal My Life As A Dog, was the perfect director. That film was not about a dog, but about a boy who longed to be one, or indeed to be anything than what he was, a little boy whose mother was dying. Both that film and Hachi have the knack of showing the point of view of ordinarily neglected figures--a little boy, a lost dog--who do not or cannot express themselves verbally. In Hachi, that point of view is expressed in dog-level POV shots with desaturated color (to represent a dog's color blindness, presumably). Curiously, as the film progresses, and we get to the heart of the story, the dog waiting faithfully for 9 years for a master who will never return, we lose the point-of-view shots, as if in recognition that the story's impact relies on a human perspective. After all, we don't expect humans to be loyal and persistent. It is the contrast between the dog's behavior and our expectations (and knowledge) of each other that makes the dog heroic in contrast.

Like the classic European directors we fell in love with in the 50s and 60s, Hallstrom doesn't need much story to make an engaging film. It does feel thin around the one-hour mark, but finishes strongly, walking that fine line of honest, decent sentiment without sentimentality. And yet, although I liked the film, it felt weightless. There is nothing to the relationship between man and dog but their relationship. There are no special circumstances binding them together, whether shared hazards or service or even attachment to some third party, human or otherwise.

Curiously, one of the most touching moments belongs to Joan Allen, playing Richard Gere's widow, who happens upon the dog many years into his vigil waiting for his never-to-return master. Allen's character never seems to have bonded closely with the animal, and she approaches it, perhaps hoping for some connection due to their shared loss. The animal looks at her uncomprehendingly, but does not move or shy away. Allen says, "I'll just sit with you until the next train comes, if that's alright." The dog gives its tacit permission, never veering off its focus on the door through which its master may yet arrive. There is a silent acknowledgment that, as much as it is healthy for us to move on, those who cannot may be admirable in their own way. (Take that, Lovely Bones!)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

After effects

Peter Jackson, who made Heavenly Creatures, a brilliant descent into literal madness of two adolescent girl, seems to be trying the same thing in The Lovely Bones (2009), which apparently stands for the proposition that when you die, you will go to a fever dream version of New Zealand. The afterlife is, evidently, the ultimate special effect.

My wife, who read the novel, feared that the film version would focus on the crime-detection aspects of the story and get bogged down in the material circumstances of the story. That's not where the film went wrong. The story elements are actually rather dull and routine, and ultimately don't amount to anything.

So the film's entire raison d'etre is its concept of the world beyond. The story adheres to the old concept (it's prominent in Our Town and the Peter Beagle novel A Fine and Private Place) that the dead gradually lose interest in the affairs of the living, perhaps once the circumstances of their death are understood or their loved ones have learned how to properly mourn and/or move on. Sometimes its posited that they have a particular task to perform or message to pass on to the living, as in Heart and Souls or Field of Dreams.

There's two problems with all this. First of all, once you've introduced some CGI, everything looks as though it might be digitally created. This is a particularly acute problem for Mr. Jackson, whose Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners and King Kong all look as though they take place on some other version of the earth. (Maybe it's just the way New Zealand always looks.) I suppose it made him the ideal director for the Ring films. But the story comes completely ungrounded, when even the suburb neighborhood in which it begins could have been faked. (And certainly the landscape in which Stanley Tucci's villain meets his end is digitally created.)

The bigger problem, the one that all artists in this vein of storytelling share, is that Death is that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler has yet returned. (I heard that somewhere, I'm pretty sure.) Anyone who contemplates the specifics of a life other than this one is guessing. Even the Bible is vague on the particulars. And Mr. Jackson posits a child's cotton-candy Rainbow Brite eternity, which I hope is meant to reflect the very young protagonist's view of the world to come, and not Mr. Jackson's own imaginings. Let's be fair: it's an impossible subject, and that Peter Jackson stubs his toe on it is not his fault except to the extent that he tried to do it all.

I'm afraid the movie suggests that when you die, your soul goes to Wellington, New Zealand, where you will dwell in Weta Digital forever.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No good guys

Perhaps one of the attractions of film noir and crime films in general is to take you to the bad side of town where you have no business going. In Act of Violence (1948), the protagonist played by Van Heflin stepped over to the bad side years ago, during the war, when he ratted out fellow Americans in fear of what would happen to them if their prison camp escape failed. Now mean and crazy Robert Ryan (and isn't he more fun when he's mean and crazy?) is back to exact vengeance.

Heflin is a respected local businessman, a nice guy with a nice wife (Janet Leigh) and the beginning of the film sets him up as the victim of a psycho. But as it unfolds, Heflin is the evil one, taking desperate steps to maintain his facade. This is my preferred form of noir without cops or a detective, but a flat-out contest between good and evil in which no one character completely embodies either.

What makes this lesser-known noir one you need to see is the performance of Mary Astor (best known today as the good bad girl in Maltese Falcon) as a burnt-out prostitute. Movies are often coy and cute about prostitutes. They turn up as "dance-hall girls" or "B girls" or just waitresses, but Act of Violence, while it doesn't use the word, is not evasive about how Astor earns her daily bread. Nor is it (or she) coy about her age. She appears, at age 43, without base make-up, just some lipstick and mascara. In Classical Hollywood terms that makes her realistically aged (yet still beautiful) face look absolutely ancient. Instead of a frilly negligee, she has an off-the-rack robe thrown carelessly around her. And she doesn't have a heart of gold. She "helps" Van Heflin by introducing him to a hired killer (pictured above), to do away with Ryan (which act in turn destroys Heflin). Astor does not receive the recognition she deserves for being one of the few Golden Age actors more interested in acting than in stardom--and at MGM, to boot.

Two visual elements that make this film beloved. First of all, the first-rate classic low-key, limited-source, low-angle noir cinematography by Robert Surtees (not to be confused, although I always do, with his son, Bruce Surtees), who was mostly a mainstream cinematographer of projects like and Ben Hur and The Sting, although he will always be a personal favorite for photographing The Last Picture Show. Second, some wonderful views of old Los Angeles before they tore it down--not a subject of personal nostalgia for me, but an important aspect of the connection between noir cinema and hard-boiled fiction, especially that of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson.

Most importantly, Act of Violence in which the presumed villain never does anything villainous and the protagonist is punished (with death) through his own acts observes the noir principle--assume nothing, especially when it comes to good and evil.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Short back and sides

There are low-budget independent films and then there are miniscule budget films. Miniscule has its charms, as in The Village Barbershop (2008), which had a minimal release after being seen at the Toronto Film Festival.

It belongs to the hopeful-young-person-joins-up-with grumpy-old-man-genre as exemplifed by Gran Torino and Up. So you know the success of the film is going to hang on the quality of the company, because there really isn't anything new to say. Everybody finds out that they need a new start, they need to find a way toward hope. With the young, it's natural; with the old, it needs to be re-learned.

The extreme low budget of this film forced economies upon it which actually add to its quality. For example, most scenes play out in two- or three-shots, so that the actors have control of the performances instead of the editor and director. Frequently, multiple actions are played out in single shots. If comedy is tragedy plus time, it is also misfortune plus distance. Keeping the camera a little farther away lends the kind of dispassionate distance that makes everything a little funnier.

I can prove this. Imagine you are viewing a performance of Oedipus Rex. You hear and see what Oedipus hears and sees and you feel for his terrible misfortune with him. Catharsis and all that good stuff. Yay tragedy. Now--put Oedipus on his throne very far away from you. Let's put him half a football field away. Then he summons the seers or whoever and says to them, "Tell me why the city of Thebes is so afflicted." Then one of the seers walks up to Oedipus and talks very quietly to him, so quietly we can't hear him. We can sort of see Oedipus's face scrunching up. Then we hear him scream:"I did.......WHAT???!!???" The world's most famous tragedy is now funny.

This is one of silent comedy's built-in advantages, that everything in that world takes place behind a large window that prevents sound from reaching us, and thus we are always a bit separated from the world of silent film, which is one reason the comedies have lasted, while most of the serious drama has not (and in fact, often looks funny).

Back to Village Barbershop. John Ratzenberger will lose his barbershop if he doesn't snap out of his widower funk and face reality. Shelly Cole helps him do that. Both go from sad to happy. They have a good, believable chemistry. It all takes place in the working-class "backstage" areas of Reno. [I have a warm spot for stories that take place "behind the scenes" of a place or a milieu which seems glamorous to outsiders, but which is workaday to its own denizens.] Novice writer-director Chris Ford exhibits decency, some comic chops and a proper sense of scale (small). The villain is a bit cardboard, but that may have been due to the limitations of his casting pool.

Mr. Ford could do a lot worse and so could you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Stop reading this blog right now!

Open another window or tab and add The Deal (2008) starring (and co-written by) William H. Macy to your Netflix queue right now! I mean it! I'll wait here. Hmmm...ladedadedudumdum
...lalalala...Oh, good, you're back.

This is the funniest, most exhilarating, cynical yet hopeful low-comedy satirical romances I've seen in a long time. Even though the film debuted at Sundance to enthusiastic audiences, the producers were unable to get theatrical distribution that made economic sense. [Meanwhile a wretched thing called Chloe just hung around my neighborhood theater for a month attracting flies.] All of this is a long way of saying that although the film was a direct-to-DVD release, it's a first-rate film.

Based on, and fairly closely following an insider-written novel about Hollywood, the story offers the lesson that the best way to succeed is to stop caring. (In this way, it echoes the immortal Office Space.) Failure coupled with momentum is the true path to success.

As I've said here, I'm not trying to run a review site, so I won't recite the story or the excellent comedy cast (except to mention that it is night to see a woman of Meg Ryan showing that she, like Diane Lane, can play her own age and still be very sexy). I find myself hard put to discuss the cinematic style--in this type of fast-moving acerbic comedy, in the school of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, the craftsmanship is simple and unobtrusive. These films are all script and performance, both of which are top-notch.

The only other thing I can think to say is that this the only film ever to accurately demonstrate exactly what a producer does. Most movie producers in films are uncultured morons, cutting budgets, hiring relatives, spouting moviebabble that they don't understand. Macy's sharp producer has learned from the school of William Goldman that Nobody Knows Anything and from Woodward and Bernstein to Follow The Money. Keep your head down, cash the checks and keep moving.

Seriously--if you really like movies, see this one.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Two perfect jewels

I'll be hard put to write something about Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960) the last two collaborations between Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher that hasn't been written elsewhere and probably better before. A few random observations, then, since I cannot sum up either of these films any more than I can tell you why a Haydn String Quartet is exquisite. And these films exude that kind of classical perfection.

[Side note: Film buffs should retire the inaccurate and uninformative term "Ranown Westerns." First, only Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station were actually produced by a company called "Ranown," but the term is used to describe several other films in addition. Second, the joining of Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown's names inflates the importance of Mr. Brown. The latter was a fine low-budget producer, with credits going back to before 1920, but the films that buffs want to talk about are the 5 to 7 that Scott made with director Budd Boetticher. Scott and Brown made at least 9 other potboiler Westerns together without Boetticher, and while these are acceptable time-passers, they are not worth analysis and reverence. More sensibly, we should talk about the three great Western director-actor collaborations: Ford & Wayne; Mann & Stewart; Boetticher & Scott. The latter team has very little to do with Harry Joe Brown (who probably did little more than set up the financing and distribution for these films). Scott and Boetticher effectively co-produced most of the series.]

One of the main lessons a contemporary filmmaker, especially in the low-budget field can take from these films is the economy of shot-making. Over and over Boetticher does some storytelling, character development and transitions all with a single shot and one simple camera movement. Just look at the arrival of villain Lee Van Cleef in Ride Lonesome at the abandoned station. The riders arrive from the distance, ride into a medium shot. Van Cleef has a line that indicates his intelligence and his doggedness, the riders change direction without dismounting and we have moved from one act to the next in a single well-designed shot. This happens over and over, especially in the final sequence of Lonesome. It's as though Wyler started directing genre westerns. (Incidentally, shots like that save a lot of time when you have experienced actor and crew. It's also worth nothing that neither of these films have ANY interiors. That's right, no sets at all. That's how you make a movie in 13 shooting days.)

And Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy know how to craft a rich and complete story with only about six characters in each film--which is both economical both in dollars and in storytelling. Ride Lonesome is distinguished for its most rounded and believable would-be villains; that is, Pernell Roberts and James Coburn (in his film debut), two brothers who aim to thwart bounty hunter Randolph Scott from bringing in his prisoner. Their aim is not evil--they are hoping by bringing in the prisoner themselves, they can get amnesty for some previous scallawaggerry and begin "straight" lives as ranchers. Coburn's skill sparked Boetticher and Kennedy to write more lines and scenes for him during production, and it is hard to think of such a poised and skillful debut by an actor, albeit playing a simpleton compared to his later characterizations.

Kennedy really achieved a kind of poetry in his efficient yet evocative dialogue for these films. Here are some examples from Comanche: "Ma'am, if you was mine, I'd of come for you even if I'd of died in the doin' of it." "He rides a little on the gentle side. Maybe too gentle." "A man can break with the wild life."

On the other hand, all of the first 9 or 10 minutes of the film are without any English language dialogue whatsoever, and they are a master class in visual storytelling, as Scott trades with the Indians for a white woman. In a lovely bit of poetic symmetry, the final sequence balances the opening, by bringing this woman back to her blind husband.

But I warn you, these films trade in ironies, but not cynicism. It might be too much for a 21st-century audience. [If you'd like to watch Comanche Station yourself, click on the picture above.]

Friday, May 7, 2010

When a picture doesn't tell a story

Is it possible that Steven Soderbergh's decision to become his own cinematographer about 11 or 12 years ago has brought down his skill as a director and a story teller? I think Che (2008) offers evidence of that.

When you speak of the film "Che" you need to clarify which of three products you're speaking of. In Europe, the film was shown in two distinct parts, Che: The Argentinian and Che: Bolivia. In the US, where the release was very limited, it was shown in Soderbergh's preferred format, a single 4-1/2 hour exhibition with an intermission. This demonstrates why some directors should not meddle with exhibition or distribution. Specifically, the film was reviewed much more critically in the US than abroad, and I believe largely because of the butt-numbing experience Soderbergh put the press through. (The review in the Maltin guide more or less admits this.)

As biography, Che gets an important principle right: decide what your story is and focus on that to the exclusion of all else. But that is only true as far as the design of the film goes, not in its execution. Biopics, when they fail, usually fail from research poisoning. The people preparing the story and script get so excited by the wealth of incident one finds in most public lives and so desirous of putting as much as possible in, both to make the film truly representative of the subject's life and to reap the benefit of all that research.

But life is not drama, and an entire life is usually a complicated, meandering thing without a clear narrative line. Narrative is artifice, so in biography, just as in any story, you must decide the spine of your story, and then dip into your source material to construct the story from the raw materials of a person's life. It must by necessity simplify, and therefore distort. If you are afraid of distortion or misstatement, you have no business even embarking on a biographical film.

The story concept behind Che is very sound--to take two central, defining episodes of Che's life and set them side by side. Triumph in Cuba, fatal catastrophe in Bolivia--and that catastrophe brought about by both the nature of the revolutionary to continue seeking more revolutions, rather than administer a government, and by following a plan devised for another place and another circumstance. It is Butch Cassidy wanting to do it all over again (appropriately, also in Bolivia), it is any conqueror who seeks that one more conquest which undoes him.

And the first film sets off on this course very well. The documentary style works well, especially the juxtaposition of imitation newsreel photography of 1965, when Che is addressing the General Assembly and visiting New York with the "real" color images of the revolution. Other than the simulated interview, we do not get to know Che well-- he is almost never seen in close-up, or indeed without other people in the shot. The cinemascope frame rarely gets near anyone, and so does a good job of depicting an entire society undergoing change. Although Che's accomplishments seem heroic, he does not appear to be glorified--we only know him through his effect on others.

But the first film introduces the poison that will kill the second film. The filmmakers are so anxious to create an "objective" point of view, that they are not willing to explain anything. A sample scene might sound like this (I do not want to insult anyone with made-up Spanish names, so I will just use random made-up names). "Did you talk to Flebus?" "Flebus will not make a deal unless we have confirmed the support of the DQV." "Then we will have to go to Schenley." "But Schenley is bordered by the Rio Blatz on the West." "I see the problem. If you look at this map [a map which the filmmakers don't show us] you can see the problem here at the southwest coordinate." "Aha. General Snodgrass has us."

The film makes no effort to tell us who these people are, what the geographic disposition is, what the names of the groups refer to. Nothing. Luckily, it doesn't matter in Part One because we have a sense of ongoing motion and eventual victory.

Now imagine the same exchanges going on for 1-1/2 hours, while the characters do nothing but walk from place to place in a tropical forest, smoke and look dirty. Apparently for about an hour of Part Two, half the characters are looking for the other half of the characters. Without success. The last half-hour is somewhat interesting, once Che himself is captured, taunted a bit, executed and his body transported for public display in a very haunting MOS montage with music. It's as if Soderbergh suddenly woke up, found his apprentices had been fooling around with the video cams for an hour-and-a-half and decided to tack on some actual cinema at the end so we might forget what we had been put through before.

It is hard to imagine as skilled and experienced a filmmaker as Soderbergh plunging into Part Two (which was filmed first) without a solid narrative concept. A hint as to how this could have happened is found in the interviews on the Criterion edition in which Soderbergh talks about almost nothing but the RED digital camera used, and how amazing it is the film got done on the budget and schedule they had. He scarcely mentions Che. (Soderbergh was brought in as director by producer Laura Bickford and star Benecio Del Toro, for whom this was a passion project. Soderbergh may have had passion for the film, but he doesn't show much for Che.)

The film does look great, through and through, even the long boring parts of the Bolivian conflict. From an outsider's point of view, Soderbergh seemed much more interested in making the shots and making the day (filmmaking jargon for completing the shots scheduled for a given day of production) than in telling a compelling story.

It seems perverse to say about a man who has preserved his independence amid a great deal of mainstream success, but maybe Soderbergh needs to get back to Hollywood.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ice cold and dipped in acid

I was glad to have the occasion to revisit one of the films that honed my taste for bleak and cynical satire when it came out during my high school years, Cold Turkey (1971). Thanks the DVD-on-demand program by Fox Video as distributor of MGM/UA library, the film, written and directed by Norman Lear on the eve of creating All In The Family, is available from Amazon, from an unrestored but watchable print.

Let's start from the top. Any movie that begins with a mangy old dog wandering into a dying rustbelt town to the sound of Randy Newman singing "He Gives Us All His Love" (which Newman apparently wrote expressly for this film) is already doing well. The premise is simple, albeit full of holes: a town which can give up smoking for 30 days will get $25 million from a big tobacco company. Don't think too much about that--it won't hold up. The film isn't about smoking, it's about greed and ambition.

The most ambitious is a sanctimonious hypocritical Methodist minister, played by the usually loveable Dick Van Dyke, who is looking for a way to get out of this armpit of a town. He bullies his wife and smarms his way around town. All the expected complications develop, aided and abetted by such skillful comic actors as Vincent Gardenia, Jean Stapleton, Barnard Hughes, Tom Poston, Graham Jarvis, Barbara Cason, Bob Newhart, Edward Everett Horton and, in their only feature film, playing all the newsmen in America, Bob and Ray. And, again, how can you disparage a movie in which one citizen expresses her frustration over not being able to smoke by kicking a dog clear across the town square. I mean, dog-kicking is one of the biggest no-nos in the history of the movies!

Also, you gotta like a movie in which Richard Nixon hops on the bandwagon at the last minute for no good reason except self-promotion. (I'm said to say he's portrayed in long shots by a guy in a rubber mask, but any excuse to dump on Nixon will be gratefully accepted.) And that was filmed in 1969 (the film sat on the distributor's shelf for two years) before we knew exactly how big an SOB Nixon was.

Like It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, there is only one good and decent person in this universe, and her voice is drowned out in the madness. The finale may not make any sense--after 30 years I'm still hard pressed to say what it means--but it's sheer nihilism gives a tingle of spiteful pleasure.

I mean how can you beat three hypocritical cynical gasbags being shot accidentally by a crackpot old lady wingnut, while an hysterical crowd cheers for Richard Nixon and ignores the dying men right next to them? Awesome.

Jolly Rogers

What writer-director Richard Curtis does really well is showing how self-defined families are brought together by adversity. That family may be a circle of friends or an entire nation--maybe it's all about being British and learning to muddle through. But it is a bracing refutation of irony and despair, especially for a nation (Britain) in which irony and cynicism or de rigeur.

I was surprised to read that Pirate Radio (original terrible British title The Boat That Rocked)(2009) had gone through much tribulation on its way to becoming the film it is today. Evidently subplots had to be removed as well as some of the melodrama that still somewhat disfigures the third act of this version of the film. (Reportedly it had a half-hour excised at the insistence of its American distributor, Focus Features.)

Historically, the film is a complete non-starter. For the record, the BBC did not play rock and roll records because of union jurisdiction, not as a philosophical stand against rock and roll. The BBC could not play any records at the time--everything had to be performed or recorded specially for BBC, which is why there are a large number of Beatles recordings made solely for BBC air. The historical circumstances around the creation and suppression of pirate radio in the BBC are wrong from start to finish, and the film cooks up a flashy, but out-of-left field finale in which the ship sinks. I have an aversion to third acts that do not originate from elements of the first act, e.g., character or at least events sent in motion by characters. This one is completely arbitrary, and if it did not have the celebratory Dunkirk-style finale of having our heroes picked up by their fans it would have been inexcusable.

However, the three-quarters of a film that proceeds that episode are terrific good fun, especially if you like pop and rock of the mid-60s. This film has (unsurprisingly) one of the all-time great soundtracks. It is a charming coming-of-age story for its young protagonist--actually it would make a good double feature with Taking Woodstock: "how rock and roll saved my life." The nominal star, at least for the American market, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has very little to do, and is upstaged by Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and the incomparable Bill Nighy (center in the photo above). The film is at its best when its trying to do the least, that is, when it is just relaxing and having a good time, not dabbling in politics or arguing for the counterculture. (The subplot involving Kenneth Branagh as a repressed government minister trying to shut down rock and roll is silly and juvenile. They even give him a stumpy mustache as if he were an evil German.)

Given that Pirate Radio is best when we are just enjoying the community spirit of the usual band of Richard Curtis eccentrics, not pushing a story or a point of view, but just rocking and rolling, did anyone consider this for an open-ended television series?

Putting the pieces together

I was saying to a close friend that there is a form of drama in which the story has ended before the narrative begins, and that the narrative drive is all about the slow release of information. I was speculating that it began with British playwright Harold Pinter in the 1960's, and he astutely pointed out that it may have begun with Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, which was a little bit earlier than Pinter.

I've Loved You So Long (2008) belongs to this species; at least, in part. It tells of a woman who has been through terrible things and done a terrible thing and is now recovering from the consequences of all that, going through the awful process of re-joining us "normal" people. I confess I was interested in seeing the film because the lead, Kristin Scott Thomas, who is English, acted her role in French (her real-life husband is French). It makes sense for her character to be half-English, as it helps justify her taciturnity and self-possession.

There's a wonderful uncomfortable dinner scene in which the host expounds on filmmaker Eric Rohmer, maintaining that Rohmer is as important as classical dramaticst Racine. This is like an English-speaking person comparing Woody Allen to Shakespeare. I am happy to say that his friends (mostly French) all dismiss this inflated comparison. But it is an interesting choice, because Rohmer's characters talk and talk and talk about themselves and their relationships and their inability to do and say the things that will make them happy. Thomas's character also cannot relieve her unhappiness, but she refuses to talk about it or to demand anyone's pity.

I can scarcely remark on cinematic technique in the film--it appears relatively invisible. As is common in this genre, scenes are framed in medium and long shots, with two or more people in the shot so they can play the scene together without being interrupted by the director cutting from shot to shot. That, and the central character's reticence make the film like a good, brisk, dry French wine, rather than, say a robust, fruity Italian. What is truly remarkable is how packed the film is with incident and detail which make it consistently engaging and absorbing, even though there is scarcely any story as we usually conceive it.

And it is one of the best illustrations of the truth that real change is most often, incremental, often invisible when it is happening, but readily apparent when it has been completed. A good movie if you happen to be a grown-up or plan to be one someday.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Moore better blues

Michael Moore's films raise the question of the relationship between political communications and political action. One wonders how much Mr. Moore is interested in filmmaking for its own sake, or is it just a means to an end. His enemies would no doubt vote for the latter, and cite the failure to trigger revolution in the street after last October's release of Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) as proof of his complete failure.

Curiously, I think the film is both his most accomplished and most flawed work. Accomplished because the filmmaking has become smooth, persuasive, skillful and compelling. Flawed because of much of his evidence is poorly assembled, gleaned from secondary sources and not necessarily close to the wounded heart that made his first feature, Roger & Me such a powerfully personal work.

Negatives: Moore's street theatrics don't work anymore. After 20 years, there is nothing funny about a man with a bullhorn in front of a big corporate building being told to go away by security. It's super unfunny now that Moore is a celebrity--one guard didn't even need to ask him his name. Another security man was smart enough to tell his subordinate to stop trying to cover the lens. Everyone knows it doesn't look good to act hostile, and so not many are anymore. They politely but firmly tell Moore to leave and he goes on with his lame explanations about making citizens arrests. What is this supposed to accomplish? Put this routine to bed.

Moore completely abdicates any explanation of the meltdown of 2008 and acts as though derivatives are too hard for anyone to understand. You don't have to be able to execute the actual computations governing CDOs and other obligations to understand what they are. They are simply bundling and commoditizing mortgage obligations exactly the way we have been doing with corporate debt for years. (When I was an attorney, we began commoditizing intellectual property as a way of raising capital for creative artists.) There are two new wrinkles: (a) the bundles of mortgages included an inordinate number of high-risk loans and (b) the people selling these bundles were hedging that they might fail. Added to this, we have learned that they were engineered to fail, that money was being loaned to people who were never expected to pay, and that therefore more money was being put into the hedges than into the investments. That is, it was the old scam of creating a business which makes more money if it fails than it succeeds.

But for some reason, Moore backed away from this, and tried to get laughs of the "I'm just another dumb guy" like you variety. This is obviously not true, since we are not well-heeled Academy Award-winning celebrity filmmakers. So his dumb-guy stance is doubly insulting; it's insincere and it assumes that we are all too dumb for all this complicated finance.

Generally speaking, the proofs offered and the conclusions made don't add up. Moore shows some victims, both individual and collective, of unregulated capitalism, and offers this as proof that capitalism is un-democratic and un-American. Personally, I would be willing to entertain an argument that capitalism runs counter to American republican democratic ideals, but Moore doesn't offer any. He doesn't offer intellectual or thoughtful argument of any kind. It's as though he were to show us a smushed-up kitten on the road and argue that we need to abolish cars.

And finally, Moore throws his hands up in the air when it comes to proposing action to change or correct things. He just says he's tired and ends the movie. Well, if you're that tired, why did you make the movie? Why not propose actions to take? You've done it before. It allows the film to sink at the very last moment.

Positives: Moore's use of rapid-fire editing to make satirical points is getting sharper and sharper, and as I watched this film I wished I had seen it with the audience, as there are some terrific laughs borne of film's ability to put things in juxtaposition and invite the audience to compare. Often the contrast between the earnest narration and the snarky visuals was hilarious. I literally--not virtually--actually, physically fell out of my share as Moore's voice is heard earnestly speculating as to why and how we had been convinced that capitalism is inextricably linked to freedom and democracy while the screen shows a scratchy old clip of an insane Svengali-type hypnotist bamboozling his victim. I wish I could give you a screen grab, but it is as funny as anything Ernie Kovacs ever did using a cheesy old piece of footage.

As before, Moore is expert at particularizing the conditions he is criticizing. He finds people who have been hurt who command respect and not pity. He was also phenomenally lucky or smart to have cameras in the Capitol Windows and Doors plant during their sit-in, when the new President expressed sympathy for their action. The use of positive examples, such as the workers' cooperative high-tech company featured also buoys the audience, lifting us out of indignation.

I liked his rehabilitation of the best aspects of Catholicism, the social criticism and social ministry that Reformed Christians (as I was raised) find admirable. Moore ignores the cynicism about the Roman church and finds decent and bold spokesman for the Church founded by Jesus.

He also manages to pin down more official spokespersons that he has in the past, including the woman who is supposedly responsible for tracking the TARP money.

Finally what works for him best is his sincerity, especially about our shared hopes of what American could be. It does seem ridiculous that everyone, at least in our country, can't live comfortably without fear of losing their jobs, their homes or their health coverage. If we have enough, why do a few need to have so much more than they need, while so many have less? Weren't we supposed to have left that world behind when our ancestors came from Europe? What did we start this country for anyway?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Baker Street irregular indeed

Sherlock Holmes (2009) proves that a Guy Ritchie film (I refer to the brand AND the man) can be made without Jason Statham and non-stop profanity. The result--slambang fun you can enjoy with grandma.

Some of the things in Guy's bag of tricks are getting tired--the alternating ramped up and ramped down shots (continuous variation from slow motion to accelerated speed) have become a tired trope. While Ritchie may have developed the device himself, once a directorial flourish becomes common in television commercials, it is time to lay it aside.

Jude Law is such a delightfully self-effacing actor, that I expect in 30 years from now, he will be a Michael Caine, the kind of older character actor who commands attention and appears in every fourth film made. Why is it, I'm always glad to see him, even in a film I loathe, such as A.I.?

Glad I looked at the "making of" feature on the DVD--there was much less green screen than it appears-- many city exteriors were real city exteriors.

Can't remember a non-comic book movie that was so frankly and openly set up to be the first of a series since Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins in 1985--and that adventure never continued!