Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is this downer trip necessary?

You can tell Matthew Broderick's character is depressed in Wonderful World (2009)--just look at his sideburns. Besides, in this picture he's talking to God. (Obviously they couldn't get Morgan Freeman, so they had to settle for Phillip Baker Hall.) Interesting how movie characters never talk with God unless things are bad. They never call on God to tell them how happy they are and how great everything is going. Just when they're about to make a colossal error, which they usually go ahead and make, notwithstanding God's advice. If God actually gave advice, why would you ignore it. The problem is, he never does let you know what he's thinking. Until it's all over. Then you know for sure, right?

Most of this film feels like a re-working of Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor; uptight white guy liberated by contact with Third World People who are experiencing a crisis. This time Broderick has an affair with the sister of his Senegalese roommate while the roommate is in the hospital. Wonderful World hauls out some even older tropes, such as African-people-are-in-touch-with-the-natural-world. Thus the rational Broderick tolerates all sorts of magical ritual.

Sadly, like Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Broderick is really not in that bad shape. He is depressed and cynical, but he's not destructive, to himself or anyone else. Yes, he's turned his back on a life as a children's entertainer and on his trusting young daughter, but he's not getting drunk, beating people, crashing his car, fooling with guns, or doing the other kinds of things that people who are in really bad shape do. He's just kind of having a few bad days.

And sure enough, all he has to do is take his friend's body to Africa, witness fish falling from the sky, akin to the frogstorm in Magnolia, and he is all healed and ready to resume singing to the kiddies. So how was this a crisis worth memorializing on film?

I mean, who needs a glass that's half full, when there's overflowing glasses all over the place?

2010: Worst Movie Year Ever?

Joe Queenan wrote it. Couldn't agree more. Read it here.

Two minor provisos: I haven't seen many of the movies he writes about, because unlike a professional critic, I don't get paid to see bad movies. I'm 54, so I only have about 25 or so years left, and can't waste any time on junk I would never want to see, even for free.

Also, I like John C. Reilly, although not as the star (except in Walk Hard). But I don't hate him like I hate Will Ferrell, who is squandering a formidable talent on dog poo.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spoof of a travesty

Wet Hot American Summer (2001) was the first quasi-official feature film project of the sketch comedy group The State. I've already discussed the transition into feature films by Derrick Comedy, another NYU-based group. Actually the 15 intervening years between The State and Derrick say something about the development of cutting edge comedy in the US. The State was a theater and video oriented group, transitioning easily to episodic television, especially with Monty Python as a model. Derrick Comedy is from the age of YouTube, in which the short film is the primary mode. The former tends toward absurdism, non sequitur and repeating characters. The latter tends toward parody and burlesque, but with a narrative basis. The contrast between the two groups is virtually a perfect statement of the essential differences between theater and film.

As an example, consider the difference in the way the groups approach the concept of a "character." In Mystery Team, the three leads play characters which are absurd and bizarre, but who are consistent, interact with other characters in plausible ways, feel emotions, grow and change. Characters on The State are primarily vehicle for comedic concepts, such as Louie the Guy Who Repeats His Catch Phrase. This is not meant to bear any relationship with a human being. It is not even a springboard for actual comedy. It is a comment on the very idea of comedy, specifically the threadbare device of running characters and their tired catch phrases. (I think Ricky Gervais nailed this topic in the second season of Extras, where the cardboard character and his hackneyed catchphrase became an albatross for Gervais.)

In point of fact, The State's best film work is the sketch comedy The Ten, riffing on the Ten Commandments. It almost seems like a Python premise. Of the ten sketches, three or four of them are gut-bustingly funny. But The Ten is not a real movie, any more than And Now For Something Completely Different is.

Wet Hot American Summer tries to have it both ways, or even three ways. It is primarily a parody of low-budget 1980s slob comedies (specifically camp comedies such as Meatballs), an object of nostalgia for people who graduated college in the late 80s and early 90s, like The State. So there are a number of gross-out jokes, some simple mistaken identity gags, sex frustration and crazy weird character gags, like the insane chef portrayed by Chris Meloni.

Sec0nd, like the films being parodied, WHAS would also like to establish characters with whom you sympathize and about whose ultimate fate you are supposed to care (I don't). Hence, there is a lukewarm romance between Janeane Garafolo and David Hyde Pierce, sex comedyu threads for Ken Marino and Michael Showalter, a weird romantic thread for Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks, and one for Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper, which somehow culminates in a wedding between Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black, evidently the only stable and well-balanced romantic pairing in the movie.

Third, the film wants the freedom to make non sequitur sketch-type gags, regardless of what they do to the continuity or plausibility of the film. Hence the most famous sequence of the film, in which the counselors go to town for an hour to relax and get away, start mugging the citizens for drug money, wind up in a crack den and return happily to camp, none the worse for their hour of getting away from those pesky kids. Or Paul Rudd can make out while letting campers drown without apparent consequences. Or Janeane Garafolo can go ballistic when a camper is in trouble, begin screaming for a phone and proceed to trash the camp nurse's office, losing all sight of the object of the panic--finding a phone--and just knock everything to the floor and scream, ignoring the phone that is there. And in the final talent show sequence, one character can cause Skylab to land harmlessly in the middle of the camp with his mind--again, regardless of the facts about Skylab.

The fact is that the crazy stuff is the most fun and provokes the most outright laughter, but it also makes it impossible to accept WHAS as an actual movie. I trace this whole line of films back to Blazing Saddles, which was the first full-length burlesque I can remember, and which quickly abandoned all claims to plausibility, identification or narrative flow. The trap is that once you discard those elements of filmmaking, then your jokes must be awesome and constant. In Airplane, the flow of jokes is steady, but the quality tails off drastically. Blazing Saddles can't even find an ending, repeatedly deconstructing itself into boredom. Mel Brooks himself realized that this format was a dead end, and returned to sympathetic characters and a real story arc with the next film, Young Frankenstein (conceived by Gene Wilder).

Members of The State seems to have realized it and dialed it back in subsequent years, writing screenplays for the Night at the Museum series, a couple of the Herbie movies, Role Models, the tedious Reno 911 series and movie, Balls of Fury and the best feature work attributable to this group, Michael Ian Black's first-rate screenplay for Run, Fatboy, Run. But none of these aspire to the groundbreaking type of humor that The State once stood for.

So the question comes down to--how funny do you want to be? 'Cause for maximum laughs, you may have to blow up your own movie.

A story before naptime

Captain Abu Raed (2008) is reportedly an attempt to make a Jordanian Charlie Chaplin movie. Making a Chaplin movie without Chaplin is always a bad idea. Chaplin was the greatest actor in the movies, a brilliant multi-faceted performer. He did not craft great stories or invent original situations. His stories are poorly constructed and grotesquely sentimental at the core, which is some of the problem with Captain Abu Raed.

The first 30 minutes of the film are completely enchanting and will make you love the city of Amman and the Jordanian people and impress you with the compositional talents of the film's writer-director, Amin Matalqa. After that, the inability to spin a compelling story does in both the charm of the leading actor, Nadim Sawalha and the fine cinematography of Reinhart Peschke.

Abu Raed is an airport janitor who wears a discarded captain's hat home. When the children in his impoverished neighborhood spot him, he adopts the identity of a airline captain and spins marvelous tales for the children, creating an oasis of fantasy and imagination from their harsh urban life. So far, we have Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen (both characters are practically sexless). Then Abu Raed tries to rescue a boy from beatings administered by his drunken father. But the plan backfires. He rats out the father, the cops come, everything is covered up, Abu freaks, but THEN...nothing happens. This bad-guy father never visits any reprisals on the son. You can't have your bad guy refuse to do bad stuff--that's just bad story telling.

Then Abu makes a plan for the mother and children to escape from the father. But...they successfully escape!! Yes--no complications, no difficulties, no story twists. A man makes a plan and then executes it. That's a story?

There's a tentative relationship with a young woman who is an airline pilot, but I have no idea what it means, since there are huge differences in age and class between her and Abu--he simply is an unimaginable suitor in this society.

How would this be different if Chaplin were in it? Well, first of all there would have been some slapstick complications in the rescue and much comedy of embarrassment in the scenes with the young woman. There would have been a powerful bond between man and boy, as seen in Chaplin's The Kid and a profound sense of longing for missed opportunities, as in the dazzling final shot of The Circus.

Look--if you're going to make a Chaplin movie, you better damn well have a Chaplin at the center of it. Otherwise, you've just got goo.

Incidentally, here's Chaplin in The Kid with what appear to be, appropriately, Arabic titles below the English titles:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


First let us stop to note that so overconfident were the marketers of the film version Youth In Revolt (2009) that although I was aware it was based on a popular series of novels, that it had two Michael Ceras, one Zach Galifianakis, a Jean Smart, a Fred Willard, Justin Long straying from his Longitude, and a Ray Liotta, I was happily stunned to find Steve Buscemi on hand to play Cera's miserable louse of a father. I mean, c'mon--you can't keep us Buscemi fans in the dark like that and expect to have a successful indie film!

The best thing about the film is seeing Michael Cera in a non-Cera role, that of Francois (left above), who is charming and destructive cad. The worst thing about the film is how toothless it makes teen rebellion. After wreaking havoc in as many directions as possible, everything turns out all right in the end, and after all, those kids just have to rebel, don't they? Maybe this made more sense in the novel, where Nick Twisp was 14. Now he's 16, but looks 22, which makes his light treatment by authorities seem strange. Is the moral of this story make sure you blow up cars and buildings before you're 18, so you can enjoy it without going to jail?

Clearly this film was made a while ago, and Michael Cera is going to need to come up with a new character--we don't want to see an insecure over-educated teenager using a walker to go pick up his social security check. And he's clearly younger in this film than the more poised film star appearing in Paper Heart. (By the way, that makes two films that feature both Michael Cera and animation--one of my criticisms of Youth in Revolt is the animation left on the cutting room floor. Although--if you are checking out outtakes on the DVD, be sure and see Jerry's heart attack. Worth the price of admission.) He hasn't worn out his welcome yet, but he'll need to be careful soon. (By the same token, Emmet Walsh is too old to be your girlfriend's father. Grandfather, maybe. Otherwise, explanations are in order.) I propose that he and Justin Long re-team and co-star in something, maybe a triangle with Ellen Page.

And can we declare a moratorium on pretentious and vindictive blond preppy boyfriends? We've all seen Animal House, the character is now 30 years old, it's time to give that stereotype a rest. Most blond preppy boyfriends aren't bright enough in real life to come up with these diabolical plans to trip up the hero.

Meanwhile, there is Jean Smart's incredible timing, Buscemi being Buscemi, and Fred Willard passed out in his underwear, high on mushrooms.

I know I'm not the target audience for this movie, but I'd much rather teens had this to see than another "I Know What The Sexy Vampires Did" or "Transformers Part XVII." In fact, I wish I'd been something like this when I was wondering if I'd ever have a girlfriend.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crumpets and bullets

Seeing such a rare thing as a "Brit noir" like They Made Me A Fugitive (1948) brings into relief what an American phenomenon classical film noir is. Perhaps it is because of its implicit denial of the American Dream. True, the British believe in "muddling through" and that "there'll always be an England." But there's no promise that you will be there to participate, or that you will come out all right. It's implied that in order for England to go on, you may have to take one for the team.

But the American Dream is an individual promise. Work hard, play by the rules, you will be taken care of. But that idea is on a collision course with the notion that Fate can always reach out, grab you, beat you to the pavement, and leave you there to face whatever comes. Non-Americans have always known this. The good thing about bad luck is that could always be worse. Maybe, perversely, that's why the happy ending of They Made Me A Fugitive is acceptable. Because in that culture, it's understood that all the endings are arbitrary.

Night and the City (1952) proves that it was possible to make an American film noir in Britain, simply substituting British actors, but maintaining the American outlook, style and pace. But They Made Me A Fugitive is thoroughly British, as demonstrated in both the black humor of the clip posted above and the class distinctions that riddle the story. Trevor Howard's character, Clem, is a "toff", a "swell." He is of better birth and background than his criminal pals, just slumming, in it for the money and likely to get out. That is intolerable to Narcy, the leader of the gang. The ironic thing is that Narcy is far more effete and fashionable than the rather gruff Clem. Trevor Howard was rather good at playing a man who, cultivated though he may be, is not to be trifled with. When people get hit in this movie, unlike those clean American fistfights--a swift "biff" to the chin and the fellow obligingly falls down--it's messy and people get hurt. There is a pervasive feel of danger, too--one senses that anything could happen, and that no character, even the comic relief, is safe.

The black humor mentioned above is also evidenced by a scene in which a woman harboring the fugitive Clem tries to entice him into doing her a favor by killing her husband. The humor and the rather good tough banter is attributable to screenwriter Noel Langley, best known for the basic script for The Wizard of Oz and the final scripts for the 1951 Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol and Pickwick Papers, directed, like Fugitive, by Alberto Cavalcanti. Perhaps that's what leavens this surprisingly tough film, given the way we Americans think of the Brits.

Afternoon tea in this movie would have to be laced with whisky. Or poison.

Monday, July 26, 2010

How do you keep the music playing?

Jeff Bridges's performance in Crazy Heart (2009) seems more like that of Hank Williams, Jr. in The Hank Williams Story or Willie Nelson in Rambling Rose dragged on screen to play some variation of themselves than that of a long-time movie actor.

Perversely, like those non-actors, Bridges is most authentic when he is on the bandstand, singing and picking; less so when he is playing the roistering old road dog we've seen in The Wrestler and Tender Mercies and Walk The Line and every other "washed-up middle-aged guy in search of redemption" movie. That is pretty old stuff, and aside from the quirky presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal, there are no surprises to be found there.

So the first hour of the film is authoritative and energetic and exciting and the second hour is devoted to the "going to the AA meeting, skipping the AA meeting, getting drunk, acting stupid, going back to AA" scenario that we have seen over and over. (Especially if you watch television as well as see movies.) Side note: Best use of AA meetings in a movie: You Kill Me.

The songs, written and produced by T Bone Burnett and Steve Bruton provide much of the energy, and the unbilled performance by Colin Farrell doesn't hurt. They seemed to be on their way to creating an American counterpoint to Once, in which the music forms an inseparable part of the storytelling.

But you know you're in trouble when they haul out Robert Duvall in the second half to do his gruff but loveable old coot turn that he has paraded around dozens of movies before. Bit by bit the originality and novelty of the film leaches away, and before it was over I found my mind wandering, trying to remember the names of every other movie with this story. (I can't believe they bothered to buy a novel to base the movie on--the plot could have been worked up by reading the backs of DVD covers during a quick trip to Blockbuster.)

At least it avoided a contrived ending. There's nothing wrong with the movie, but was it really necessary (other than the need for writer-director Cooper to launch his career)?

Poisoned valentine

Film history is riddled with so-called "love letters to the theater": All About Eve, Stage Door, Les Enfants du Paradis, The Band Wagon, The Last Metro. All exhibit not only an affection for the theater, but a knowledgeability, an insider's authenticity.

This makes John Cassavetes Opening Night (1977) genuinely unique. Not only does it seem to have a contempt for live theater, as contrasted with film--at least independent film, but it is shot through with inaccuracies and contrivances which bolster that contempt.

I've spent a lot of time reading and thinking about film, but I've spent more time actually working in theater. And I have never seen such a shambles in the professional theater as the mess that is presented in this film as a rehearsal. (As an example, look at the video above, in which a woman who should be sent for professional help is badgered and bullied into attempting some very half-baked and unconsidered staging.) Nor could a show hoping to go to Broadway expect to get there with such an ugly and dysfunctional set. There are stairs and doors that do not seem to go anywhere, not to mention scenes that boast a similar lack of direction and purpose.

Perhaps Cassavetes's purpose was to demonstrate how artificial live theater is compared to his own improvisatory film technique. But he stacked the deck. In an interview, Cassavetes admitted that although he knew he was supposed to write a "play within the film," he hated that play and could never complete it. If so, why did he go ahead with the film? Why not wait until he had the script of a good play, or at least a plausibly professional one, as one would expect from the playwright in the film, played by the affable Joan Blondell?

Then, once it is evident that the leading actress played by Gena Rowlands, on whom the financing of the show rests, has serious problems, why is no one assigned to be with her, stay with her, make sure she shows up when and where needed? (Not to mention no understudy and no back-up star. The producer in this film, played by Paul Stewart, is the worst ever. He obviously learned nothing from his days with the Mercury Theater under Orson Welles and John Houseman.)

And what is the purpose of the subplot about the fan who is killed in a random auto accident and begins haunting Rowlands? That whole thread is built up and massaged through some abortive visits to mediums, and then it is dropped and never reappears through the entire climax of the film, instead of precipitating the actress's final breakdown, which would have been logical.

Maybe she just has a breakdown because she realizes she's in a crappy play with a crappy director and a self-absorbed co-star. (Scary how good Cassavetes is, as he is in Rosemary's Baby at playing a narcissistic actor.) What Cassavetes is bad at is improvisation. Here he is, the grand guru of improv, elevating into an entire method and an aesthetic principle of filmmaking, and he is atrocious. He is repetitive, self-conscious, breaks character, completely without creativity or imagination. Were Cassavetes alive today, he could not pass the audition for the most basic improv class around today. Perhaps that explains why his films are so prolix and off-topic--he literally couldn't tell the good material from the bad.

One last note--what was the deal with Zohra Lampert? She is the most inert actress who ever lived. Her voice is flat and her face looks like it was shot with those tranquilizers that freeze your muscles. She expresses absolutely nothing, yet she worked non-stop through the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe directors thought that, instead of fighting with an actress to get her to do the scene right, they would get an actress who just did nothing--then at least, it's not wrong.

God knows she's not going to upstage Cassavetes.

Floating to the surface

Of the Miyazaki films I've seen, Ponyo (2008) is the first I can imagine an American child enjoying, even without an adult telling them why they should like it.

It feels lighter, more weightless, more improvisational and less death-0bsessed than film such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle.

Perhaps that is because the characters are floating much of the time, either because they began life underwater, or because the water is overtaking the land for much of the story. But there are none of the ominous older magic-oriented characters often found in Miyazaki who bring cruelty and destruction. Even the wizard in this story is essentially benign and brings resolution and reconciliation to the story.

And the strange inexplicable elements in the story--the fact that Ponyo never really does look like any kind of fish, Ponyo's marvelous pursuit of her little friend on land by running on giant fish that look like waves (illustrated) or even the whole world's lack of concern or upset that the whole landscape has been flooded--all have a plausible dream logic to them. These things would literally happen in dreams; not the artificial "dream" designation that Disney uses for materialistic fantasies, but real bits of confusion that your brain brings together in a weird narrative that makes perfect sense until you wake up.

Moreover, the film is as brightly colored as a preschool classroom; in fact, it has much more of a preschool feel than his other works, and thus perhaps the optimism, gaiety and the simple faith in friendship that small children bring with them. And for us grownups, perhaps the most delightful part of this fairy tale is that it doesn't make sense, it's not consistent, and it hasn't been organized so as to teach a moral or a lesson--it's a joyful hodgepodge to be enjoyed as an experience. Because Miyazaki is an artist, not a schoolteacher. And school is out.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

You can't handle the truth

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009) is based on a probably unadaptable book. In fact, it arrived on screen via a theatrical workshop in which writer-director John Krasinski participated. By no means does it encompass the entire book, nor is it a work of film mastery.

But it should be seen for the sake of three superb sequences of which any novice director could be very, very proud. The first is illustrated, an appalling story told by Chris Meloni, whom I had only known from Law and Order: SVU, but who evidently has an improv background, as evidenced by Wet Hot American Summer, which I will be writing about in the near future. Meloni's character tells of meeting a woman who has been wronged by a man. He deplores this fellow's terrible behavior and then takes advantage of her himself. Simple, predictable on paper, but Meloni delivers it with such variety and nuance--even while it is clear that this man is a self-absorbed jerk--that it still is a surprising and guilty pleasure.

Frankie Faison executes a brilliant set piece about his father, a washroom attendant, whose whole life was about pleasing the white man while remaining invisible, and his hatred, contempt and love for that father. And John Krasinski does a superb job with a long existential monologue about why men behave the way they do which should not work on film at all, but because of his skill and his confidence about the material, works perfectly. The language throughout is that of Wallace, which although not resembling actual human speech, but is artificial and self-conscious in such a way that it makes the material far less offensive than it would otherwise be.

Krasinski has added a frame story about a jilted woman who is conducting the interviews as part of a graduate thesis, but the structure is loose nonetheless, and the film is driven more by the quality of its parts than by a real narrative push. At times it feels like a comedy sketch film, especially due to the running conversation of two waiters, who operate as links between pieces; the theatrical roots of the project are never far from view (especially in the Faison piece, which is shot like a Jarmusch film, with head-on angles and static shots).

It makes an interesting contrast with The Vicious Kind (2009) another Sundance Festival favorite about why men are so terrible. The film almost disappeared, but has resurfaced this year due to the new prominence of its lead actor, Adam Scott, who starred in Party Down on Starz and Tell Me You Love Me and has a story arc in Parks and Recreation that started this spring and will continue into the fall.

Scott has a face and demeanor that allow him to play very kind and innocent people and horribly cruel people, and he does both as the confused, tortured, sleepless and angry Caleb in The Vicious Kind. Scott has long specialized in jerks, but you might call Caleb a jerk with an explanation.

It is a film about transgression and betrayal which throws your sympathies toward the transgressors. The innocent Peter is pretty annoying, and even J.K. Simmons doesn't become likeable until one learns that he was the guilty party in his marriage, not the injured one. Consequently our sympathies for Brittany Snow's Emma shift as she shifts from victim to vamp.

Oddly, what I thought about as I watched this film was not so much Neil Labute or David Mamet but Arthur Miller, because the primal nature of the triangle between two brothers and a father who, intentionally or not, puts the boys in competition with each other for his approval. Tellingly, the denouement is not about ultimate revelation and breat-beating truth-telling, as it would be for, say, Eugene O'Neill, but acceptance and, finally, a truce in the long family war. Writer-director Lee Toland Krieger does well with his limited story materials, keeps it simple, yet with steady motion. (I enjoy any indie movie which does not have long close-ups of actors staring at nothing in which I have no idea what they or I are supposed to be thinking.)

Emotional violence then, is like physical violence. The only way to stop the cycle is to just stop. That process makes surprisingly good film fodder.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Depression

This clip from Torch Singer (1933) starring Claudette Colbert is a wonderful encapsulation of a certain level of Depression entertainment which affirms just how hard things are, and how you can change them if you just seize hold of your opportunities. This was the dominant economic mythology of the era, and it may have helped America survive it.

It also confirms that sometimes the only way to be a mother is to reject full-time motherhood. Poor Claudette is lumbered with a baby which she is pressured by the nuns to surrender, so she becomes hard-boiled Claudette--don't miss the last minute or so of this clip as you see her moving up the entertainment ladder from gin mill to swanky Broadway club. When she suddenly substitutes for a would-be children's radio entertainer, she re-connects with her inner Mommy, which takes her on the road to reclaiming her child.

Which introduces another theme of this movie--how radio permits the creation and adoption of a fabricated identity. And the anonymity works both ways. When Colbert tries to find her daughter by reaching out to all the girls with her name, her search takes her to a little black girl in a slum. But the film sidesteps both minstrel humor and condescension, and Colbert immediately masks her disappointment at not finding her girl and goes ahead and has a lovely visit with the girl.

As one might expect, the film provides a reunion for the parents, who now see that they could indeed make a life together and all is neatly resolved, but after all, stories do have to have ends. Most people wouldn't be satisified with same s***, different day as the ending of a movie. But I can't help suspecting that that is exactly how Depression filmmakers would have liked to end their films. (And how, in the case of I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Heroes for Sale, they did end the film.)

Prophet and Loss

The standard rap on Extraordinary Measures (2010) is that is just a TV "disease of the week" movie. That seems very wide of the mark. The film feels like a strange defense--or perhaps apology--for capitalism; specifically, capitalism in the area of pharmaceuticals. Moreover, it is taken as a given that this is the only right and proper way to conduct biochemical research, by developing and preparing a product for market. They even get the father of two very sick children to buy into these weird assumptions.

Yet at the same time, the story contains its own indictment of this corrupt system. I wish Michael Moore had seen this movie before he launched Capitalism: A Love Story. It contains much stronger arguments than the weak tea Moore served up.

However, don't avoid the movie because you think you saw it when it was called Lorenzo's Oil. There isn't a whole hell of a lot of time spent with sick kids. They are merely a premise to get the story started. The bulk of the story is about creating a pharmaceutical start-up, getting bought out by Big Pharma and rushing to market to an inferior, but more easily manufactured drug. This is supposed to be a story of hope and aspiration? Everyone is compromised here. Yes, the kids don't die, and that's good, but not because of anything but parental determination, which is almost a sidebar to the main story.

With the center of the story dedicated to a peculiar economic-political argument, one is left to contemplate the thwarted father-son relationship between Brendan Frazier's character and that played by Harrison Ford. How to consider the variety of acting these men do? Frazier's greatest performance is still George of the Jungle, and that air of hopeful bewilderment still does him good in Extraordinary Measures. Most of the film his job is to just run around and tell every one to hurry up before his kids die, and I wonder if he was simply channeling the spirit of the first assistant director. As for Harrison Ford, much is made these days of the fact that he has not won an Academy Award, just like Cary Grant (who won a lifetime award, but not a competitive one). And it is true that actors like Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne only won Oscars when they had an eye patch, a funny accent or a mental breakdown; what they did in movie after movie, the work that built their reputation, was never recognized for its greatness.

This has had a deleterious effect on Mr. Ford, who evidently decided to crank up his natural grouchiness so that his acting would be more apparent. It becomes more offensive when one reads that although the film treats his character as if it were a true-life person, even giving him an after-story in the end title cards, he is playing a fictitious creation, loosely based on the accomplishments of an Asian doctor. Here I was feeling all sympathetic for the sad lonely person in the story and then I find out I'm just feeling sorry for a millionaire actor with a family and a home in the mountains! The heck with him.

The film tries to pump up its reality credentials by showing you the real family the story is based on at the end of the film, but it has the opposite effect, when you realize how the facts have been prettied up and rearranged, to the extent that you have no idea what it is you were rooting for, or what qualities the film wants to celebrate.

Except of course that capitalism is great, even when it's too expensive to make drugs the right way and distribute them to the people that need them, whether or not they can pay. A film to warm the heart of any right-thinking all-American Big Pharma lawyer.

Friday, July 23, 2010

It didn't start with Baywatch, you know

It's so reassuring to know that our grandparents' minds were just as dirty as ours. Search For Beauty (1934) has all sorts of pretensions about being about health and fitness, but it is really 80 minutes of cheesecake and beefcake.

Other pleasures include: a very young, very blonde Ida Lupino, long before she dreamed of becoming an independent director-producer; Larry "Buster" Crabbe, gritting his teeth to show he's acting, no doubt inspiring an impressionable young Burt Lancaster; a remarkably use of a zoom & dolly in shot on a number of comic reactions, mostly into faces to which one would not ordinarily bring the camera too near.

And one side advantage of the Great Depression--young people did not have a lot of body fat which had to be compressed and shape. The clothes are tight and unstructured, yet flattering. I presume that a lot of the cast were actual athletes, mixed with a few dancers on the ladies side.

The resulting film really doesn't offer much except the bodies on display. There's a bit of comedy between Robert Armstrong, the guy who brought King Kong to New York (so we know he's not bright) and James Gleason, who is usually a smart cop or city editor, but who is a dumb rich guy in this movie. But they're really only marking time until they bring out some more young people in tight bathing suits.

If they had only perfected slow motion...

You was all just a dream?

I don't know about you, but I hate that moment at the end of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy realizes it was all "just a dream." L. Frank Baum never copped out that way--there never really was any explanation of Oz and how there could be such a weird world you could travel to and then come back. And I hate when characters are sent to dream or fantasy worlds and they spend all their time saying, "Hey! Everything is all crazy and mixed-up here!" Of course, it is, you idiot, it's a dream world! Weren't you paying attention? (George Bailey is particularly cement-brained in It's A Wonderful Life. Can't he understand that angel?)

On the other hand, the concept that the "real" world and "dream" world could be reversed dates back at least to Calderon's Life Is A Dream in 1636, if not before. This leads to endless discussions about whether or not what we are experiencing is someone else's dream, and that if they wake up, we'll be gone.

Happily, Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) skips past all that boring nonsense and heads straight into the maze world of dreams. We're not bothered with explanations or rationalizations, so we can go straight to exploring the idea of shared, directed and lucid dreams. And Nolan has come up with a new structure for an action film. Memento is the famous backward movie. Inception is built like Russian nesting dolls, or like a 3-D chess game. Besides the delightful intricacy of the conception, you get the delicious sensation of cutting between three or four different James Bond movies at once. (And clearly, Mr. Nolan is paying tribute to the fabulous ski chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service without the terrible rear screen projection inserts that mar the earlier work.) A couple of critics of my generation thought that was confusing. They probably missed something while drinking their Ensure and yelling at the kids to get off their lawn. A 5-year-old could understand this movie. Those critics have hardening of the brain cells.

I have never enjoyed CGI as much as the sequence in which Ellen Page's character starts monkeying with the dreamscape in a number of impossible ways. When she folds two views into a pair of echoing mirrors with DeCaprio in the middle of them, I couldn't help sensing a tip of the hat to Orson Welles, who uses that image in both Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai, not to mention the foreshadowing of having multiple versions of the characters operating in parallel dreams simultaneously.

While I love seeing Ellen Page playing a superbrain--is there anyone better at that?--I was disappointed in forcing the very cool Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play a plodding stick-in-the-mud. And as wonderful as Marion Cotillard is, she must not get caught in the trap of playing the mysterious wife of the big American film star. She needs to get back to films which are built around her, and not devolve into an interesting European extra attraction. She's too remarkable an actor for that. And before I leave the acting (DiCaprio was OK, didn't spoil the movie, still not a very interesting actor), Tom Hardy, who has been building a decent resume, really stepped out in this film as Eames, a man who plays hard but never loses sight of the stakes, ready to avoid a loss he doesn't need to incur. I suspect he will soon become a movie star. Incidentally, is Michael Caine in the movie as anything else than a good luck charm? Did he have a larger role that was cut from the film? Or is he simply required by law to be in every film ever made?

My only serious criticism of the film is the tenuous connection between the "top" story--the effort to get a young man to reject his father's legacy without rejecting his father--and the "bottom" story--DiCaprio's effort to reconcile himself to the responsibility he feels for his wife's death. Yes, both are linked to the idea of "inception," i.e., origination of ideas. But the two stories are emotionally unconnected, which makes for an overall chilly tone for the film. It is exciting, visually stimulating, remarkably suspenseful, considering the boxes it puts itself in, but it is not moving or touching. That could be said for most of Nolan's work--lots of head, little heart.

But you could say the same for Stanley Kubrick, and his stuff isn't too bad.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

True art film

We've all seen parodies of "art films" usually referring to Bergman, Resnais or Antonioni. Slow-moving, filled with tableaux vivant, with actors ponderously reciting strings of non sequiturs. We laugh, both at the exaggeration, but also from the conviction that the works being parodied are not sincerely felt, but intellectual grandstanding waiting to be knocked down.

On the surface, Sayat Nova: Color of Pomegranates (1968) might seem to be one of those self-important Art Films. But as it unfolds it is clear that although it is languid, non-dramatic, and filled with strange, dreamlike imagery, it is passionate and sincere. Although it is subtitled, it feels as though one was watching without titles--clearly, the director is inventing a new visual and dramatic language not indebted to the conventions of theater, novels or even other films.

I presume that it would help if one was familiar with the life and poetry of Sayat Nova, of whom the film is meant to be a portrait. It certainly has no intention of recreating dramatic turning points in his life; instead, it portrays situations and incidents in a static manner, somewhere between painting and pantomime. It does help to have some familiarity with Orthodox iconography and Armenian music, as I do. But there are very few Westerners for whom this film is not going to feel alien.

Nonetheless, seeing it has a value not unlike Godfrey Reggio's films, in which images and music tumble over each other without explanation or explicit program. (Yes, there is a program here, the life and work of Sayat Nova, but I don't know it, so for me it is the same as if it did not exist.)

This is one of those films (like the first time I saw Fellini) for which I was sure that although I did not know what the creator was doing, I was absolutely sure that he did.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Video production as an aesthetic

Stephanie Daley (2007), evidently inspired by some of the "dumpster baby" stories that hit the news a few years ago, seems to have been discussed only in terms of its politics and psychology. But I find it interesting in its use of video both as a production technique and a source of aesthetic principles.

The title character undergoes counseling, sessions which are videotaped. The point of view in these sequences switches without comment from the video feed to an "objective" or "real world" camera view. The real-world view is often handheld, with racking focus and erratic framing, whereas the confessional context of counseling is locked down and focused.

But the "real world" view also shows us things that Stephanie is telling the counselor, taking us to places that we could not otherwise go. And so in a sense, the whole movie lives in Stephanie's head--or is it in the counselor's head, since we are privy to her parallel story of first thwarted, then anticipated motherhood.

Films based on the video aesthetic could be said to be happier indoors, actor-driven, prefer longer takes in which acting and camera movement define space rather than editing, in which color is muted or variable, but for which the camera is given extraordinary access. And that access is demonstrated most explicitly in the scene of Stephanie's restroom labor and delivery. More than one person has said the scene recalls a teen horror film, and one has to reflect as to whether that was intentional.

(Speaking of being actor-driven, the cast of Amber Tamblyn, Tilda Swinton, Melissa Leo and Jim Gaffigan is superb.)

Film critics and historians use the term "a woman's film" to mean stories about relationships, family, crises of identity and the like. I'm not sure any other film has gone so directly to the heart of the central fact of being a woman, the capacity to conceive and give birth, and how that capacity radiates to so many other aspects of a person's life. Some female directors, like Kathryn Bigelow and Mimi Leder prefer to view themselves as just another director, not unique or limited because they are female. Obviously, writer-director Hillary Broughton has no such concern--only a woman could have made this film. For me, it's like seeing a foreign-language film in English--a fascinating look into an alien world, with different vocabulary and customs.

Monday, July 19, 2010

More pie, Mr. Keaton?

Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) starts out so well-intentioned, it is easy to forgive a lot of its conflations, misstatements and mythologizing. You gotta like a film that doesn't just concoct a story about the invention of throwing pies in slapstick comedies, but actually delves into the question as to what are the best types of pies to throw.

1939 marks the beginning of self-consciousness for Hollywood. The talkies had been in place for 10 or 11 years and it was becoming apparent that the pioneers of the first decades of film were at or near retirement age, and that it was time to memorialize film history. Hollywood, like John Ford, has always believed "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So a story was concocted for Don Ameche to play a pioneering filmmaker who begins as Mack Sennett and transmogrifies Cecil B. DeMille, two figures who, together embrace much of American silent film history. (Alice Faye is the heroine, but given that they took away her one and only song for the movie, she hardly makes a mark in the film, except as a darn good sport with all those pies and all that mud.)

It is of course, marvelous, for a slapstick buff to see not only Buster (still relatively young and fit) but Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Snub Pollard and Ben Turpin in Glorious Technicolor. For that one is willing to accept some gross, but probably not important, inaccuracies. It bunches all of these fellows (including) Buster into a proto-Keystone Kops group. (Few of them were in the Kops, and Buster never worked for Sennett and never threw pies at all in his movies.) Buster does re-create the motorcycle stunt from Sherlock, Jr. with the very game Alice Faye. There's even a brief doff of the hat to Fatty Arbuckle, as a rotund actor is seen from behind walking through the lot and is greeted by a stagehand, "Hi, Roscoe."

Later, the Don Ameche character starts to get into biblical epics and the romantic complications with Alice Faye take center stage, and those have the same effect on me now as they did when I was 10 or 11--get rid of the mushy stuff and back to the slapstick!

Oddly, though few of the "facts" about film history in this film are correct, the spirit is right, not to mention, recreation of silent film stages and production procedures. Unfortunately, some of the clips were used over the years as authentic examples of silent film, but Hollywood Cavalcade can't be blamed for that. The participation of so many who were there makes it a valuable historic resource for the look and feel the silent era. The Buster Keaton Story, produced 19 years later, should only have had that level of authenticity.

There's nothing wrong with film that couldn't be cured with more Buster Keaton. (Wouldn't you love to see Buster's version of Inception?)

Better luck next time

I sought out Goodbye Solo (2008) because of my admiration of the work of director Ramin Bahrani in Chop Shop and Man Push Cart. His work can be evocative with an understated dignity. He is especially good with children and with the use of objects to represent emotion, experience and longing.

But Goodbye Solo feels schematic, insufficiently worked-out and theoretical rather than observed. The film chronicles the meeting of a man who wants an immigrant taxi driver to drive him to the site of his planned suicide, and essentially, not to make a fuss. The driver wants to make a fuss. There's the plot. And while I understand that it is central to the film that it is not over-explained how the intended suicide got that way, that choice robs the film and the character of texture. I certainly wasn't expecting a "rubber duck": "I wants to kill myself cuz I can't go on since my wife died and I couldn't save her." (Although that particular cliche has a lot of truth in it.) But if I was the cab driver and I wanted to convince this man not to kill himself, I would have trouble coming up with reasons, given that I never know anything about him.

Oh, he has a grandson. That doesn't know he exists. Who he doesn't talk to. It's as if Bahrani is saying, "I can take any possible source of drama and eliminate it and STILL make a movie." Except that the most interesting things in the film, the driver's daughter and his wife, are almost peripheral to the whole thing.

It's a classic example of what I call a "doughnut" movie. It goes around and around its own subject matter, but as for actually delving into the subject--the choice to take one's own life--there's nothing there.

Merrily I Went To Sleep

Merrily We Go To Hell (1931) is resurfacing as an example of wicked pre-Code Hollywood entertainment, but it is in fact a very proper and upright message picture which conveys the following information:

(a) Being an alcoholic is bad for your career and your marriage and you can't recover with just willpower;

(b) Sometimes your crabby old father-in-law is right;

(c) If you're going to have an open marriage, you might as well mess around with Cary Grant (this applies mostly to women);

(d) Just because a woman (Dorothy Arzner) is directing, it doesn't mean the female protagonist is going to be any stronger or smarter than if a man directed, nor does it make it any more interesting;

(e) Frederic March is only interesting as an actor when he plays drunk;

(f) Sylvia Sidney and her huge brown eyes are always awesome;

(g) Even a terrible drunk can do a good "meet cute" scene, although a woman should have more sense than to fall for a man who's sloshed to the gills the very first time you meet him.

(i) Background score music might have helped movies like this one, which dates from the years before they figured out either the technology or the need for a score;

(j) Ridiculously contrived endings are nothing new in the movies.

Sometimes rediscovery of neglected periods and genres of film, such as pre-Code films or film noir is a valid and valuable aspect of film history. And sometimes it's just a marketing hook for mediocre product. Can you guess where I'm going with this?

Open and shutter case

It's hard to tell whether the excessively artificial look and tone of the Shutter Island (2010) is a deliberate aesthetic choice by director Martin Scorsese, or a symptom of his distance from the material. At first, the artificiality, such as the opening depicted in this illustration, looks like a heightening, a evocation of film noir in modern color tones. Reportedly, as fake as this scene looks, it was not shot green-screen, but on an actual boat. Unfortunately, the effects supervisor monkeyed with the sky to make an impossible color and a background ambiance which is mis-matched with the foreground lighting of the principal characters. And that approach seems endemic to the film.

It is not so much that Scorsese is trying to emulate film noir with a more modern technique, but as though he is copying contemporary directors like Ridley Scott and the way they evoke film noir. It is style at two removes. The purported comedy After Hours felt more authentically noir (and more genuinely menacing) than Shutter Island. The script feels like an oddly uncommitted episode of The Twilight Zone and

Just checked around on-line and found out that Roger Ebert thought the film has a surprise ending. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis denies that intention, and says that by 15 minutes the audience should be aware that something is wrong with DiCaprio's character. For my part, I guessed the "twist" by about 20 minutes, and I could do that because it's exactly the same plot twist found in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a highly influential film produced in 1919. And if the twist isn't supposed to be a surprise, why is so much energy put into the red herrings. (In the above-alluded-to interview, the writer said the protagonist's conflict was between his love for his wife and his daughter. That was not made clear in the film as it exists.)

Scorsese's famous continuity errors go into overdrive in this film and there is some of the worst green-screen work scene since they stopped doing rear-projection--was that intentional, or did Scorsese really not care on this one? Surely no one seemed to care that Leonardo DiCaprio's German accent is far better than Max von Sydow's. And when, midway through the film, Patricia Clarkson gives a lucid explanation of what's "actually going on" and the camera is finally locked down and the colors manipulated into fake hues in post-production, which is supposed to make the whole scene feel more reliable, it just amps up the unbelievable quality of the scene (not to mention the whole film). And sadly, whereas the story might have been interpreted as metaphor for--I don't know, whatever you like--the ending reveals it to be a boring little mental health story, as if that boring psychiatrist at the end of Psycho had been put in touch of an entire movie.

There are pleasures to be had, mostly from Mark Ruffalo, one of our master actors working today, along with Spacey, Downey and Depp. Ruffalo is called upon throughout much of the film to be communicating two intentions at the same time (wise-cracking sidekick and concerned, observing doctor) and manages it perfectly. DiCaprio, on the other hand, still has squinty rat eyes and a flat thin voice typical of people brought up in Southern California, so it is not fair to put him next to an actual trained and expressive actor, like Ruffalo making him look like a well-intentioned amateur. Ben Kingsley has nothing to do, especially since they won't let him act creepy, which is what he should be doing, and Max von Sydow is clearly on hand merely to build up his grandchildren's trust fund. But nothing of this bears any relationship to acting in a Scorsese film, which used to be detailed, precise and reflective of real life.

The point is, if you're going to be deliberately artificial, like Hitchcock, Leone, Michael Powell (a favorite of Scorsese's) or Ken Russell, you have to be committed to it, you have to really believe in it. And Scorsese directs this film as if he doesn't believe one single frame of it, and it's all a silly lark, all quotes from stuff he teaches in film class. What I'm trying to say is that this appears to be a Brian DePalma picture.

This movie will confuse you or terrify you if you have never seen a movie before or if you only have five working brain cells. What attracted a first-class talent like Scorsese to this project (other than a pay check) is the real mystery.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Just waiting for that kitchen sink to show up

Murder at the Vanities (1934) is the kind of film that only a producer could concoct. It's part whodunnit, part hokum comedy (with Jack Oakie and Victor MacLaglen competing to be Biggest Hambone of 1934), part musical (featuring Kitty Carlisle, just a year before climbing aboard with the Marx Brothers) and part skin show.

The picture takes its title, setting and aesthetic inspiration from one of the sleaziest showmen in theatrical history, Earl Carroll, creator of Earl Carroll's Vanities, a review like the Ziegfeld Follies or the Shubert Passing Show, which appeared in new editions on an annual or near-annual basis in the 1920s and 30s. Carroll was as close as one could get to smut peddler within mainstream entertainment of the early 20th century. His mob connections got him a jail term when he perjured himself to protect some bootlegger buddies, which added to his notoriety. He was also a well-known cheapskate.

Murder at the Vanities partakes of Carroll's spirit, tossing together a wild variety of entertainment, plenty of girls, not much money spent on either top-tier talent or underwear for the women. The film has become notorious on the YouTubes because of a song called "Sweet Marijuana;" there are also a couple of numbers from the Duke Ellington Orchestra, still in its first generation, and yet to experience the Swing Boom that Benny Goodman kicked off in 1935. Ellington still swings hard, especially in something called "The Rape of the Rhapsody," which would an example of surrealism in music, if such a thing existed.

Clearly, the producers didn't care much about the mystery. The police can't be bothered stopping the show, even with a murder backstage, and the investigation seems to be conducted by having the producer (Oakie) and the cop (McLaglen) alternately yell at each other and ogle girls. Meanwhile, characters run around on stage with both fake and real guns, without any intervention by the authorities. What could this show have looked like to its audience?

On top of all this, some German guy debuts the song "Cocktails for Two," soon to fall victim to Spike Jones, and Kitty Carlisle sings, referring to the Earl Carroll girls, "Where Do They Come From and Where Do They Go?"

Nobody has an answer for that one.

"Tell me that again"

Notice how Ollie seems to understand Stan better each time after the second explanation.

First look at INCEPTION

The following is a substantially unedited email from Filip Piasevoli, a former student, who is not only a film enthusiast, but one, as you will see, is alert to recurrent themes and tropes. Also, he starts with a very amusing and telling anecdote about film (and gaming) fans today:

Yes, it's 3:12 in the morning and I felt the urge to email you after attending the midnight release of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Here is my recap of the night.
I knew the night would be memorable when we managed to sneak Jamba Juice smoothies into the theater on a hot ticket movie, an almost impossible feat. During the coming attractions, a trailer came up with the basic premise of "you never know when you'll bump into someone that will change your life." Alright, maybe a little hackneyed but who knows if a director can add a fresh spin to it. 5 people get into an elevator and one is a shady character. The lights go out, a girl gets "bitten" or something that makes her scream. By this point, everyone in the theater is pretty much wondering what the **** is going on UNTIL the words appear on-screen "directed by M. Night Shyamalan". At once, all 300 people in the theater give an exasperated laugh of "who the hell keeps letting this guy direct the *****iest screenplays ever written?" You couldn't reproduce the genuine disgust amongst all movie goers at the appearance of his name; absolutely one of my favorite movie experiences of all time.

I don't want to ruin the movie for you at all because its so incendiary in the way it causes one to think throughout the movie. You're literally taught to think in a completely different way than you may be accustomed to and then Christopher Nolan expects you to think AND learn along those lines for two and a half hours. I was absolutely enthralled during the movie at the fact that I could keep up with everything that was being thrown into the mix ad it made me enjoy it that much more. At the same time I love the way the movie highlights the key universal features of dreams, for example the falling feeling that wakes you up, or the feeling that you've spent a lot of time in a dream when it's been a relatively short time in the real world.

Please get to the theaters and see this soon and let me know how you feel. Overall, a good, enjoyable movie if you can follow along. I don't think that it will get acceptance from the majority of the audiences because it's so hard to follow along with but I absolutely loved this new, thrilling experience that will remain a landmark movie in my opinion in the same way that Memento redefined the way a tale can be told. Bravo Christopher Nolan, whoever wrote the screenplay (too tired to IMDB it at the moment) [for the record, it is Nolan himself--his first original since Memento, although that was an adaptation technically], and Leo Decap for delivering in a role where no one really knows what happens at the end (just like Shutter Island). That's it for my comments...
Yes, Fil, you can count on my getting to the theater ASAP. I have been anticipating this movie since the last holiday season when they started running the teaser trailers. I strongly admire Nolan's work, I teach Memento in my film course, and I really can hardly wait (I have a family obligation this weekend) to see this film.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Couldn't help it, I laughed

You can read all over the InterWebs how Be Cool (2005) is a terrible movie, an unworthy sequel to Get Shorty, fails to capture the spirit of Elmore Leonard and is completely unfunny. My brain is obviously stupid, because it told me to laugh when there was funny stuff in the movie and there was whole bunches of funny stuff.

Be Cool lacks the deadpan black humor of its predecessor. It is much jokier, even beginning the film by kidding its own existence (Chili makes some very disparaging remarks about movie sequels) and Vince Vaughn and Andre Benjamin are permitted to run riot through their scenes, spritzing more comic ideas than the film has time to handle. Director F. Gary Gray doesn't have an enormous amount of comedy on his resume, but his background in slick crime film such as Italian Job seems to have been useful. Further, he seems to have had the sense to leave the comedy to the professionals, and to keep things moving and give the story a little heart.

The heart comes from a performer named Christina Millian, who plays the discovery everyone is fighting over and who should have become a star from this film. She seems very much worth caring about, and Chili's solicitude for her seems completely plausible.

I felt a personal connection to the whole topic of criminal methods to enforce collection in the music industry, because from my experience in that business between 1981 and 1988, there were a lot of criminals involved and many of their methods were criminal. The law firm I was working for had a number of artists who had begun their careers on a label widely known to be mobbed up (that catalog now belongs to a mega-corporation). They seemed to have a lot of people in Accounts Receivable who could crack their knuckles and who possessed a lot of detailed information about kneecaps. At least more than they had information about music.

Dwayne Johnson--then still calling himself "The Rock"--has to be commended for his comedy chops and his courage in playing a flamboyantly effeminate gay character without camp or condescension, but just a kind of dim incomprehension that is normal for most actors who have no idea what image they project.

And film history will note the happy reunion of John Travolta and Uma Thurman on the dance floor 10 years after Kill Bill Volume 1. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

They don't make them like this anymore...

...which is not an unalloyed blessing. Scarecrow (1973) is the kind of rambling, acting-driven, somewhat indulgent project which, if done at all nowadays, is made independently. But coming fresh off The French Connection and The Godfather, this is what Gene Hackman and Al Pacino chose to do (and what the Warner Bros. of that time was happy to finance and distribute), to remind the world that they were actors, and not merely puppets dancing for the master filmmakers.

They play two ex-con drifters making a feckless journey, ostensibly to Pittburgh, where Hackman claims to have the means to open a car wash they can run together. They don't get there. That's about the whole plot.

Scarecrow doesn't even really show its stars doing what they do best--they seem to have reversed roles for the heck of it. Hackman is a rather sour party-pooper and Pacino is a goofball clown. Given the length of the film and the lack of narrative drive, this wears thin before very long. The director and screenwriter have neglected to provide alternative textures, so it is Gene and Al all the way. Gene wants to do something practical, Al acts wacky, Gene gets mad, tries to do something practical, Al acts wacky, and so on and so on.

However, if you are curious about the film, but want to save time, start at about the 1:30 point (the entire film is about 1:50). The clip above is from this portion of the film. Just before the portion you see, Pacino's bitter ex-wife has lied to him, telling him that the son he has never seen was in fact never born. See Pacino's character's natural humanity turn and sour on him, as Hackman must now adopt the role of caretaker.

I am sure everyone involved in the film was the better for making it, but I'm not sure what the rest of us gained, except certainty that these men had a lot of good work ahead of them.

Something to watch

Given our increased commitment to rooting out terrorism in Afghanistan, every American man, woman and child needs to see the documentary Afghan Star (2009), a portrait of the local version of American Idol, which, according to the film, is providing a new level of social cohesion and peaceful celebration of differences and similarities among the variegated tribes.

The film does not break new ground aesthetically, but it is very well directed and edited; one of those documentaries in which the filmmakers are either exactly where you want them to be at this point in the story, or they have cleverly contrived to make you want to be exactly where they take you. Their lead characters, the four primary contestants emerge as rounded and complex characters, given their limited screen time, as do the ancillary characters, such as the host-producer, who clearly sees music, television and the Afghan Star program itself as powerful forces of social and cultural liberation for his country. (Heartbreaking indeed for a Westerner are the scenes of Kabul in the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion, scenes of the happy, progressive, exciting city so fondly recalled in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.)

Progress does not move in all directions, at least not at the same rate. One female contestant, performing her final song after being eliminated from competition, deliberately begins to dance and (deliberately or not) lets her hijab slip from her head. This brings a storm of controversy, anger and even death threats to her in her home community. On the other hand, the remaining contestants are all from different tribes, yet their competition is clearly seen as a friendly rivalry, and many Afghanis elect to support contestants from different groups than their own. Moreover, voting by cell phone for their favorites is the most universal and effective form of participatory democracy that many young Afghanis have ever experienced. (A Taliban attack on use of cell phones after dark poses a threat to this process at one point in the story.)

Americans should see this film not only to know what is going on in Afghanistan and to see the changes taking place, but because you will come away genuinely liking the Afghan people. No, they're not just like us, that's not the point. But you have to admire their endurance, perseverance, even humor at times, like the women who chuckle for the camera as they sit with their heads uncovered at the taping of Afghan Star. And the children who begin to see that there can be an alternative in life to doing what your great-grandfather did. And the Pashtuns who have learned to enjoy Hamsara songs.

Maybe we could replace all wars with the World Cup and Pop Idol everywhere...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Developing a brand

For most film buffs, the principal interest of The Cheat (1931) is its pre-Code salaciousness. A remake of a 1915 C.B. DeMille film starring Sessue Hayakawa--who was a star at the time--it is about a society woman who, hard up for money, accepts a loan from the neighborhood sleazeball in exchange for you-know-what at an unspecified future date. When he has trouble collecting, he does what he does with all his possessions, he burns his own personal brand into said lady. In 1915, the fiendish Oriental was an actual fiendish Oriental; in 1931, he is merely creepy Irving Pichel, voted by his school "most likely to be on a sex offender registry if such a thing existed in our time." Pichel was mysteriously prolific in film; he was a triple threat in that as an actor, he (a) wasn't good looking and (b) couldn't act and as a director he was (c) adequate. Although, to give the devil his due, his first directing assignment, The Most Dangerous Game is pretty good, and still the best version of the endlessly-filmed and often parodied story of the man who hunts people on his own private island.

But for theater buffs like me, the interest in the film lies in the presence of the two principal contributors.. First is legendary director George Abbott, whose hits include the play Broadway (1926), right through A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum (1962) and his own revival of On Your Toes (1983), which he directed when he was in his 90s. Abbott, like many theater people, made his first sojourn to Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, earning credits such as Dialogue Director for All Quiet On The Western Front. This credit, which suggests working as an acting coach, might strike someone who worked with Abbott later in life as curious; his attitude toward acting seemed to be, stand still where you can be seen and say the lines so they can be heard. But silent film directors had been used to directing actors during the shots and had never learned how to rehearse scenes in advance, so I suspect he was useful in that way.

Later on, Abbott returned to Hollywood from time to time to shepherd one of his many hits onto the screen, such as Too Many Girls in 1940, The Pajama Game in 1957 and Damn Yankees in 1958. In the latter two films, it is fairly well documented that Abbott functioned as producer and let his brilliant co-director Stanley Donen do what he wanted. Problem was that Donen, the innovative co-director of On The Town and Singing In The Rain and sole director of Funny Face, began his career as a lower-tier assistant on Abbott productions and therefore had such deference to Abbott that his films of Abbott shows look exactly like films of stage shows.

The most surprising thing about Abbott's work in The Cheat is the fine-looking outdoor work, scene in the clip above, although not to best advantage in the poor print used. Although a stage director, he did not seem to be afraid of taking synch sound cameras outdoors where veteran George Folsey gave him some fine compositions. But once he gets indoors, everybody starts to line up against a single wall, and he exhibits a stage-bound sense of space. That is, theater space is primarily lateral only. Some movement in depth is possible, but generally only for limited and very dramatic effects, to be used sparingly. But film movement ranges easily in every direction, and a film set has four walls, where a stage set has two or three. Moreover, ideas and conflict in theater is expressed in words and dramatic performance among the actors unfolding over a sustained length of time, and so it is with The Cheat. Whereas in film, there is wider range of expressive tools available to the director--the use of objects, of space, of relative height or size of objects, inserts, whether of things or of personal reactions. To be fair to Abbott, a lot of early talkies leaned heavily on stage technique, but not all, as the work of Rouben Mamoulian, Tay Garnett, Lewis Milestone and others has shown.

The other point of interest of The Cheat is star Tallulah Bankhead, seen in the clip above to be still young and beautiful before alcohol and other aspects of hard living had taken her looks and made her resemble a theatrical caricature of herself. This was part of a sustained effort in 1931-32 to establish Bankhead as a film star, with leading roles in seven films, none of which excited audience interest. It's hard to fathom, as she is more charismatic and dynamic than a lot of young people who did succeed at the time; but for whatever reason, she just did not catch on. Perhaps it is the slight sense that she is holding something in reserve, that she is using acting technique and that she is not as exposed and vulnerable as a popular heroine of the early 30s, even a tough broad like Stanwyck, needed to be. Abbott does not give her enough close-ups in The Cheat for her to establish intimacy with the audience, and it would be interesting to examine her other vehicles at this time to see if they have similar problems. Certainly, she is not yet the legendary hambone she became 10 years later, so that was not the problem.

For whatever reason, Bankhead didn't become a movie star. Instead, she went back to the theater, where she was a reigning grande dame, and only swooped by Hollywood to favor the masses with her brilliance in occasional forays such as Lifeboat and The Royal Scandal, and made jokes on the radio about Bette Davis in All About Eve, reputedly based on Bankhead, although Davis was plenty hammy enough to be ridiculous on her own, without dragging poor Tallulah into it.

Today we have fewer such barriers. Directors such as Sam Mendes move freely between the media (as did Kazan before him), not to mention actors like Helen Mirren, Kevin Spacey and Liev Schreiber, not to mention sometime visitors such as Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johannson and Al Pacino, who do just fine on the stage.

Not to mention that all shows in live theater are presented in life-like 3D!

Friday, July 9, 2010

When is a Jackie Chan movie not a Jackie Chan movie?

One cynical response to the question above might be, "When he is making a junkie kiddie movie like The Tuxedo and The Medallion." But what mars those films is not that they are intended for a juvenile audience, but because their employment of second-rate wire work and other tricks comprises what Jackie Chan is. What is important about Jackie Chan is that he is what he does, and what you see him doing is something he actually did, even if it's undercranked or the set has been adjusted to fit his physical capacities perfectly. Thus, in the more recent kiddie movie The Spy Next Door (2010), we still have the delight of seeing him effortlessly scramble up the face of a suburban house to perch himself on the roof of the garage and fetch a lost ball. It is a trick that goes back to Douglas Fairbanks, and that's a pretty good pedigree for an action film.

I'm gradually zeroing in on my own film aesthetic, and Jackie Chan lies at the heart of it, which is a perpetual tension between narrative and actuality. And actuality embraces the contrived, when it is being filmed honestly. Dancing and singing skills are real--and we hate it when they're not--but not necessarily narrative. Likewise with kung fu and other martial arts. Even with the contrived elements, the skills involved are real. And we enjoy that. But if there is nothing but singing or nothing but martial arts, not only does the film fall apart, but we are bored. If the performance is in proper proportion to the story, but not integral to the story, we accept it, but we are not satisfied. The triumph of Jackie Chan over his predecessors in martial arts films is similar to the triumph of the musicals of the 1950s and 1960s which found a way to incorporate performance without interrupting narrative. That is, narrative is incorporated into the performance. Hence, Jackie's emphasis on and skill with incorporating the settings and props at hand in a fight sequence, regardless of how unorthodox they may be in formal rules of fighting. This integration of story and performance is why Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton's feature films continue to be satisfying (and needing no explanations or apologies for modern audiences) while Keystone comedies pretty much tire out the viewer after one short subject.

This integration of narrative demonstrates that Jackie Chan has always been more interested in being a good filmmaker than being "the greatest fighter in the world." Such an interest seems to have brought him to Shinjuku Incident (2009), a gangster story, reportedly based on fact, centering on Chinese being smuggled illegally into Japan, and pushed into underground and outlaw businesses. It has much the feeling of a Warner Bros. picture of the early 30s, with Jackie's character as a fundamentally decent guy pushed into crime via necessity. Most interesting in comparison with Jackie's larger body of work is the way fights begin and end in this movie--and there are fights.

Fights in martial arts movies begin the way songs begin in musicals--there is a little pause to shift gears, to tell the audience "get set--here comes a fight/song." Perhaps we need to adjust our expectations, or the performers just need to get ready to operate in a different mode. But we all know there is a transition, enjoy when it is smooth, and feel that little lurch when it is rough. Because these are performances coming. They are to be enjoyed, savored even.

But a fight in a dramatic film, like Shinjuku, like From Here to Eternity or Bad Day at Black Rock is an expression of narrative conflict, not of performance skills. So they start without preamble and usually end without triumph. Thus, Jackie finds himself surrounded by opponents and begins flailing away--not with moves developed by training, but the way any strong and reasonably nimble man would do to keep danger at bay. That Jackie brings a lot of dignity to the role is no surprise to anyone familiar with the body of his work.

And uncharacteristically, he does not have the flashiest role--that distinction belongs to Daniel Wu as Jie, who is as good-natured as Jackie but lacks the inner steel to become a criminal. He undergoes some violence and then a personal transformation. Jackie's performance when he finds Jie's body proves that he is a real actor.

Of course, there are others that could do what Jackie does in this film, and no one else who can do what he does in his own films. But that does not mean he is not entitled to prove himself as an actor in a film like this. After all, nobody thinks Cary Grant or Harrison Ford can act, because they are not in the kinds of films in which you catch anybody "acting"--that is, visibly and often theatrically emoting, in the Meryl Streep mode.

I suppose Jackie is used to being underestimated, and they're still doing it, as the Karate Kid remake was not expected to be the hit it has become. I hope to write about that in the near future.