Saturday, October 30, 2010

Where will the new filmmakers come from?

To date, 2010 has been a dismal year for film. Inception and The Social Network seem to be the only films people are talking about. The dinosaur of Hollywood seems determined to eat its tail with more comic book movies, remakes and endless horror franchises. But there is a generation of filmmakers ready to make good films--not arthouse filmmakers, but straight-down-the-line mainstream storytellers, who have proven their mettle with excellent short films made for nothing. And thanks to YouTube, these filmmakers do not have to traipse around the festival circuit or knock on every door in Southern California. Now the films are posted, and Hollywood is the one doing the knocking. Here are three examples. Let us hope they keep a grip on the skills and intuition that got them this far and ignore the focus groups and committees of note-writers who make American studio films so idiotic and unwatchable.

Panic Attack: Giant robots destroy the filmmakers hometown of Montevideo. The live action took a day or two; the animation three years of intense work on a laptop computer.

Pixels: Pixelated old-school video game icons take over New York (and the the world) in this new video for the French techno-pop band Naïve New Beaters. It was directed by a young Frenchman named Patrick Jean.

The Raven: A chase film and sci-fi thriller set in an alternate and futuristic Los Angeles, directed by Ricardo de Montreuil and made for $5,000.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Tao of Caine

While we're on this Halloween jag, let's consider the modern urban horrors of the Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown (2010). The film itself is not much, a minor variation on Death Wish -- the civilian vigilante. At least Caine's character has some military service to explain his inner toughness and his familiarity with guns. (Death Wish wanted us to believe Charles Bronson was an architect. I assume he designed bomb shelters and dojos for Chuck Norris.)

The film boasts gang members and dope addicts straight from RADA and is obviously shot on a housing complex slated for demolition as soon as shooting was over. Cinematography and music are by-the-numbers. You're not going to learn anything about cinema generally by seeing Harry Brown, except perhaps that once you've established that our hero has stumbled into a den of aggressive junkies and gun merchants you don't have to spend another ten minutes making the same point. But as a student or fan of film acting, this is another master class from Sir Michael.

Of course, he was born with those eyes. When he was young, the long lashes and thin eyebrow gave him an almost feminine look, an interesting contrast with the man-of-the-streets manner and Cockney accent. Then came the National Health glasses of Harry Palmer (parodied by Austin Powers) and the face could become a mask. Caine has often discussed the menacing air created by smiling with the mouth and not with the eyes. With big eyes like Caine, the threat could be devastating. As he has grown older, the glasses have come off and the eyes look puffy, almost as if they have grown callouses to protect themselves from the horrors they've seen. Robert Mitchum had those tired, puffy eyes, and they are an extraordinary tool for the older (male) actor. (Other than Simone Signoret and Jeanne Moreau, female actors have not gotten the same mileage from puffy eyes.) Puffy or not, the eyes are still a large canvas, and clearly register each thought as it passes behind it.

I've become a fan of the TV series Lie To Me. It's about an expert in facial expression and body language advising law enforcement as to whether people are lying. One of the neatest tricks in the show's bag is to cut from the end of a sequence, as the show goes to commercial, to photos of well-known people making the same face as the person at the end of the sequence; e.g., someone tells a big whopper, then you see O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon making exactly the same face. What is remarkable about the show is not the photos--those are drawn from pre-existing research, but the demands on the actor to produce the exact expression required by the script. This is an area where ordinarily the actor and director have some latitude, but not in Lie To Me. They've got to hit it square on the money. (This is one of the reasons that I advise aspiring actors to spend more time watching fly-on-the-wall documentaries then on watching other actors. It's the same reason that journalism is a better training for writing than the study of literature--it's all about going straight to the source.)

Sir Michael would be right at home on Lie To Me. The accuracy and economy of his work is devastating. In fact, it has become more economical with the years. This would be only natural; one gets older, moves less quickly, moves less, period. For Caine it has become a matter of no longer dancing around the idea of the scene, but going straight for the center.

Caine of course, did teach a masterclass as part of a BBC series on acting. Nobody much has seen the episode on playing Restoration Comedy, but Caine's episode is well-known, even by the general public in Britain:

It is so well known, that comedian/impressionist Peter Serafinowicz parodied it:

This is the definition of inside baseball.

What Caine does could be called "How To Be A Brilliant Actor Without Being Caught Acting." At this point, I don't care much what he does, as long as he appears regularly. Viva Caine.

The Howard Hawks woman - eternal and constant

She appears in many films, played by many actresses, but as you can see here, there are certain verbal tropes that reappear over and over.

A fantasy figure, the "man's woman," sure, but it's a fantasy men and women can enjoy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Horror = expressionism

Cat People (1942), is a seminal horror film for three reasons; it is the first produced by Val Lewton, and because it was produced by Lewton, a sensitive soul who eschewed Universal-style monsters, Cat People emphasized (a) scare sequences using the power of suggestion and (b) horror based on everyday fears, insecurities and neuroses.

Horror stories are always ridiculous, which does not make them less compelling. Nowadays, when we know longer believe in fairy godmothers, frog princes or walking mermaids, we happily exchange stories of vampires, zombies and malevolent space aliens, all of which are equally impossible and fantastical as the fairy story characters we've discarded. I suppose in the first half of the twentieth century, monsters were like wicked foreign countries declaring war from somewhere afar, and we need only kill them as soon as they get close enough. Today our worst enemies spring from our own families, or worse still, from the inside of our own heads, and we must not go outside, or up the stairs or fall asleep, lest we be overtaken.

And while Cat People is not the first psychologically based horror film (we know of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) at least, it brought the trend into the mainstream in the 1940s, interrupted briefly in the 50s for space aliens who represented communist invaders, only to roar back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the monsters were our friends and neighbors, lovers and spouses. Whatever, the theme, horror is the genre that takes the invisible, the unspoken, the suppressed, the unseen, the inner state and renders it into a visible, audible tangible form. Where the Lewton films broke away is by providing the least amount of visual and audio information possible and requiring the audience to supply more of the connection between the real horror inside and the melodrama outside.

Cat People is the great grandma of the modern style of horror. Put aside the fantasy element about turning into a cat--this is a story about a woman raised to believe that sex will destroy her and the man she makes love to. Seems contemporary, that "sex is bad" thing. It's the basis of almost every teen horror movie since the 1970s. The old horror films may not be frightening anymore, but they are disturbing and sometimes even shocking. (Certainly the lesbian undertones of Cat People are unmistakeable and unsettling even today.)

In the clip posted above, starting at about 4:55 or so is the beginning of the most famous sequence in the film, referred to in 1952's The Band and the Beautiful, excerpted in Martin Scorsese's Journey Through American Film and weakly imitated in the 1982 remake. A woman is terrified by her own fear that her sexual rival has the power to transform into a large killer cat. Note how benign each separate shot in the montage is, especially the shots of walls and corners. Also how ominous the echoing dripping water. Sadly, the person who chopped the film up for YouTube did not let this sequence run to its payoff, when the swimmer discovers that her terry robe has been torn to shreds, as if by the claws of an immense cat. This sequence made audiences scream aloud in 1942 and 1943. Maybe it won't have that effect on you, but viewed with the proper respect in the right circumstances, it should at least creep you out.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The monster next door

To revisit my undergraduate thesis for just a moment, one might characterize Stuart Gordon's deliciously nasty little film Stuck (2007) as a lehrstück. This was a species of play designed originally by poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht for the edification and moral instruction of young people. Gordon, best known for the Re-Animator is quite a stern moralist himself, and he gets to dictate moral justice in a way that is more satisfying than the real-life facts the film is based on.

For those of you joining our story already in progress, the film was inspired by an incident in 2001 when a former nurse's aide struck a homeless man and, rather than risk punishment for driving while intoxicated on drugs and alcohol, left the man on the hood of her car to expire after she parked the car in her garage. (At least one other feature and episodes of two different TV series were woven around these facts.) The actual perpetrator successfully concealed the evidence and the crime and was only caught because she began to brag, whereupon she was tried and sentenced to a long term in prison. This was not sufficient for Gordon, who concocted a more dramatic sequence of events, putting the battle between good and evil front and center.

But maybe the most fun of the film is the way it compacts most of its significant events into the small shed-like garage in which the car is parked. That description makes the film sound limited and monotonous, but Gordon works a variety of characters and situations into that tight frame, including a good-hearted family of illegal immigrants who cannot risk exposure and a series of decisions by the character played by co-producer Mena Suvari and her lowlife boyfriend.

As is often the case with Gordon, he removes the events from the context of decent society, leaving the characters to be judged in a landscape of purely self-interested lunacy; the result is a streak of jet-black humor provided by the viewer. That is, the humor is not within the film, but takes place in the space between the film and the audience (assuming the audience is not composed of sociopaths, who might find the film to be a documentary).

And most amazing of all, the distinguished Irish actor Stephen Lea creates a witty and complex performance with a character who is nearly comatose for most of the running time. Most interestingly, he rejects vengeance when it is available to him, yet achieves it anyway. The denouement has a kind of wonderful perfection, violent, wicked, gory, cruel, just and logically derived from what has gone before.

With just a week before Halloween, this is one of the best monster films you may not have seen. And the monster is a cute little blond who is kind to old people.

P.S., speaking of Halloween and monsters, see Cloverfield if you haven't yet.

Why are you telling me this?

Maybe it's because I'm not a middle-aged woman married to a very successful, much older man, but I cannot figure out why The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) was financed and produced and what it wants to say to what audience. It feels like yet another entry in the mid-decade tax-shelter movie boom.

The writer director was Rebecca Miller, daughter of the great playwright Arthur Miller. Perhaps that is how one attracts actors of the calibre of Alan Arkin, Shirley Knight, Julianne Moore, Monica Belluci, Wynona Ryder, Keanu Reeves and Blake Lively to stand around gape-mouthed at how wonderful (or not-wonderful) Robin Wright Penn is. (It's clear why she took the project--she is the center of everything, which she rarely has been on film.)

Miller seems to have a talent for scene-making, but not storytelling. The style carries over some suspiciously theatrical techniques, such as putting past and present in the same moving frame, in the manner of Sjoberg's Miss Julie. Otherwise, I could not tell you what the film was about, what happened in it or what I was supposed to feel about that. The title character has a platonic relationship with Keanu Reeves, and Monica Belluci finds no reason to continue living, which might mean the film is science fiction or fantasy. On the other hand, Wynona Ryder is unstable and annoying, which might make it a documentary. And Julianne Moore is a lesbian again, which just means the film is just as unoriginal and unimaginative as you thought. (Ms. Moore should start saying ix-nay on the esbian-lay art-pays for a while. It's getting a bit self-congratulatory.) And the whole story suggests an unnatural reflection on what it would be like to be married to one's father. (Arkin's character is creepily similar to Arthur Miller.)

I know this blog is supposed to be reflective rather than summative. But what do you do when the film does not even dent the wrinkles of one's brain? The best I can offer here is public service -- skip this. There, I just gave you 98 minutes of your life back.

Greatness, or at least Fame, thrust upon them.

There is little point in discussing Life After Tomorrow (2006) as an aesthetic object. It is straight-down-the-line-talking-heads-photos-and-clips documentary as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st century. But it raises the question of a strange phenomenon that feels more intense when put in the context of children.

That is, sudden unearned fame; that is, at least, not earned in proportion to the effort or the talent displayed. Yes, these little girls who played the Orphans and the title role in the stage musical Annie could sing loud and read lines and dance in the fashion called for (which is mostly, to clomp around in rhythm). But these were not skills that would have ordinarily have earned a child the kind of blinding stardom they achieved by dint of being part of a successful vehicle built by adults around adult nostalgia and adult fantasy. Let's be brutally honest. Children in these circumstances are being used as thoroughly and cynically as pornographers use their "actors."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Annie is equivalent to pornography. But it is as unreal, bizarre, unnatural and built around make-believe as pornography is, and like pornography does not make the viewer smarter or better or possessed of any greater insight into the human condition, but only gives the audience a momentary thrill, without any real content or value.

And at least nowadays, pornographers provide doctors. But these children were not given counsel, therapy or even a decent education while they went through this ordeal or had to recover from it. What is most appalling about the Annie phenomenon is not the cynicism or exploitation of the Broadway veterans. That's to be expected. But the willingness of these children's families to toss them into the most appalling environment, which environment they will be yanked from once they are they grow, in age, height, or inappropriate body parts. (One staffer says, "Once the stagehands get interested in an Orphan, it's time for her to go." I wanted to take a shower in the middle of the movie.) Not a few families fell apart or burst apart from the strain of mediating impossible dreams, both by the children and the so-called adults.

Such is the thirst for attention and fame in our country. I really don't think this would happen to this extent other places, where people value home, family and the ordinary joys of growing up.

In defense of show business, however, some of the girls were left with the one indisputably positive aspect of the performing life-- the camaraderie brought about by the intensity of the experience, the expectations and the hushed attention of the audience. So we'll finish this post on a better note, a happy reunion among now-adult Orphans, who seemed to have absorbed the costly lessons of Annie and survived with humility, perspective and humor.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Grace under pressure

Leave it to the Germans to make a great Hemingway movie without Hemingway (which is the best way). It is best to get the spoiler out of the way-- North Face (2008) is about the failed effort to scale the north face of the Eiger (the Ogre) in Switzerland on the eve of the Second World War. The people of the time wanted to make this a nationalist phenomenon, but neither the protagonists nor the film are having any part of that claptrap. They want to climb because they want to climb; the film wants to follow them because that's what film wants to do.

Much has been made in the reviews of the authenticity of this film, and it certainly appears that way, but the special features on the DVD reveal just how extensively greenscreen and indoor sets were used ; most probably this is the only way such a brutally physically demanding story could have been told. The mountain has done away with more people than your average serial killer, and it would be inconceivable to work at the actual site, not least because it is always in shadow (hence the constant ice and snow). Nonetheless, almost none of the digital trickery is apparent on first viewing of the film--in fact, the film is too engrossing for the question of how it was accomplished to arise. Perhaps this marks a small moment in the maturity of digital effects--here is a film for which digital effects are a sine qua non, and yet they do not appear to be evident, so thoroughly convincing is the film. Nor would it be termed an "effects film" and yet they are more pervasive here than in many an action film.

Because it's never about the effects. It's about man versus mountain, and mountain wins decisively, but not without man giving a hell of a fight. Admittedly, the men look much the worse for wear, and if they had all survived, one harbors doubts about the quality of each of their lives thereafter. The point is, the film remains gripping and convincing in a way literally impossible just a few years ago. I wonder if we will become more sophisticated about such things, and in time the CGI in this film will look as fake as cheesy rear-projection from the 1940s looks to us now. Better not to wait to find out and appreciate these films now.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

How long has this been going on?

I would like to apologize to my younger self, with regard to my complete ignoring of punk rock. In my defense, pop music and mainstream rock was in a tremendous creative doldrums during my high school and college years, and I spent the time learning about jazz, classical and theater music and dismissed most everything else as not worth my time. With regard to punk, the adolescent desire to outrage for its own sake was tiresome to me, and so I declined to pay attention to the music because of the juvenile label that was wrapped around it.

The Runaways (2010) is, by all accounts, a reasonably accurate telling of the story of the band by the same name, a band, which to all outward appearances was a cheap bit of exploitation -- "let's make a bad girls band as an answer to all those bad boy bands." In fact, it seems to have been music-based, and that is an unusual thing in ANY rock movie, especially one featuring young women.

The musical process is something that is usually botched by filmmakers. Only a handful of filmmakers ARE musical. George Roy Hill, who used Bach brilliantly in Slaughterhouse Five and introduced the world to Scott Joplin in The Sting was one. (I like Hill because he avoided underscoring, letting the music stand side-by-side with the image, rather than hover down below the dialogue.) My brief research has not turned up any other examples. A number of directors, including Spike Jonze, F. Gary Gray and Floria Sigismondi, director of The Runaways, began with music video, and therefore had some practice with the fusion of music and images. (Ridley Scott, Taylor Hackford and Baz Luhrmann have also demonstrated a flair for music.)

But all this is a matter of expressing music visually. The question before the court now is the creation of music. Stories of sole composers fall into the same trap as movies about writers. There is nothing visual about a person sitting and thinking. When they do write some music, it is usually a travesty -- improvising a full-blown song-hit. Amadeus avoided the problem by relying on the legend that Mozart composed the entire piece in his head and then merely transcribed what he had already composed. Most musicians find that fairly doubtful. There are always technical, engineering-type problems to be solved when composing, especially for an orchestra. There is a line that doesn't sit correctly for that instrument in that range, voice leading to be corrected, parallel lines to be eliminated (or perhaps emphasized). Even allowing for Mozart knowing exactly how the architecture of the music would work, there are nuts and bolts matters to be worked out.

But when the story is about a band, about people playing together, now you have a dynamic among people which can be dramatized. We've seen bad jam session movies, but there have been good ones, including Jammin' the Blues and the TV special The Sound of Jazz. In those cases, actual music conversations were taking place and the director and the camera operators were astute enough to actually capture them.

The Runaways is not a documentary. Its scenes are staged, using actors, not musicians. But it has some good scenes of the musicians finding their way toward each other and coming up with a collective cohesive style. This has nothing to do with music videos or musical staging. It is about the way musicians communicate with each other and sublimate their individual expression into a group product. When The Runaways is on this course, it is exciting and powerful. When it drifts into the usual drugs-and-sex tropes in every rock-and-roll movie, it is the Same Old Stuff. Because that stuff has nothing to do with what is going on between the characters, but is simply trading in what we are supposed to think about them.

And while theater is well suited to address the distance between us and the characters, film is better at dealing with the spaces between the characters. In this case, the space between the characters is taken up with music. When The Runaways sticks to that, it is first rate.

Friday, October 15, 2010

No doubt, not reasonable

There is no point in addressing the aesthetic qualities of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (2009). It has none. The only question is, how does such a thing happen? How does a film based on a prior film by the master Fritz Lang, starring Michael Douglas and written and directed by the solid journeyman Peter Hyams devolve into an utterly meretricious piece of tripe?

My guess is that the project begins with Ted Hartley, an ambitious entrepreneur who has acquired remake rights to a number of RKO properties. This always seemed to me a sensible idea for a business. We all know that remakes of recognized classics is pointless, and only likely to expose the perpetrators to ridicule and scorn. But there are tons of movies out there that are good, or almost good, and only need some slight change to have moved up into a higher class of film. How many movies have we seen that are going along well and then crashed and burned in the last half-hour, the last ten minutes, or even the last minute? It's not uncommon.

So making a new twisty thriller based on the somewhat implausible premise of a journalist placing himself in jeopardy of prosecution in order to prove that a corrupt prosecutor is using fabricated evidence is not a hopeless idea. But clearly he had trouble interesting young A-list talent in developing this idea, and it fetched up at the door of Peter Hyams, writer-director of Outland (a disguised remake of High Noon), The Star Chamber (starring Michael Douglas), The Presidio and 2010, a workaday sequel to the epic 2001. So although Mr. Hyams is not perhaps a startling or original artist, he has a decent track record with building borrowed ideas and well-known stars.

Here is probably where things began to break down. The modern audience will not stand for the simple complication that the plan will not work. That is obvious from the start. It's an idiotic idea--the film virtually admits it--and there is no chance it will work as planned. Here's the rule -- the plan only works if they don't reveal it to the audience. The corollary is, of course, if they tell the audience the plan, it will go wrong.

So some additional twist is required. And I will give you the spoiler, because you really shouldn't waste your time watching this movie. The journalist is actually guilty. Not only does it make the whole premise of the story ridiculous, not to mention tasteless, it makes the audience feel like a cluck to have sat through a story about a criminal who engineers his own prosecution.

There is already a very good film about an innocent man who engineers his own prosecution, called The Man In The Glass Booth, based on the play by Robert Shaw. But he doesn't want to foil his prosecutors, he wants to have someone publicly admit and be publicly punished for the genocide of the Jews. He willingly sacrifices himself to redeem humanity.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt doesn't redeem anyone. Amber Tamblyn does a decent job, and one supposes that she wanted to be seen playing a young professional woman who is capable of an adult romance, in order to break her out of the teen ghetto she was in because of her starring role on Joan of Arcadia. Jesse Matcalfe was probably happy to get a lead more demanding than the "sexy lawn boy" on Desperate Housewives. Orlando Jones does a nice job of straight acting as an honest cop, so that makes sense. But who was blackmailing Michael Douglas? Was he that hard up for work? Or needed to get out of the house? His role is not only cardboard-thin, completely unrewarding and extremely similar to a number of sneering, big-shot, scenery-chewing performances he's done before. And it was doubtless his "yes" that got the film a green light. So he is to blame in more ways than one.

Some failed films probably looked pretty good on paper and fail in the execution. This story and script must have been DOA, and yet it went ahead. With all the children going hungry and diseases to be cured, people spent time and money to actually make the film. That's a mystery.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wes Craven is an amateur in comparison

The Jone$es (2009) is the best suburban horror film since Dawn of the Dead -- either version, it doesn't matter -- it's just the central metaphor comparing consumerism to living after death and eating brains.

The characters in this film are living a non-life; so thoroughly that I found it difficult to contemplate living that life for even a few moments. It's one thing to be an actor and within a pre-determined environment under a special set of circumstances, tell a story by assuming a character other than one's own, for a period of between three seconds and three hours. But to have every waking moment engaged in a fiction--that is the definition of loneliness.

I am interested in cons and con men and have read a great deal of the fairly minimal literature on the subject and what strikes one--after you get past the imagined fun of seeing the dishonest get their comeuppance due to their own greed--is how lonely the life is. Con artists don't have friends--can't have friends, and can't really have a family, at least not the way normal human beings have. That is the fascination of both The Grifters and Matchstick Men (probably the two best con movies after The Sting), in which concepts of family get distorted and tortured into strange shapes due to this strangest of occupations.

So The Joneses are not real people engaged in any real activities--I am not posting any spoilers to say that these people are living product placements. They exist merely to interest the neighbors in the various things that they are consuming. The details of this conceit are completely nonsensical--there would be no way to measure cause and effect here, we are dealing in a satiric fantasy, and as an old boat builder said, pointing at a seam in the fiberglass said, "that's where they put it together and that's where it will fall apart."

OK, pretend you're a screenwriter now, and imagine you have two actors-slash-con artists pretending to be a sexy, happily married couple. What do you suppose will happen? Of course. you don't have to see the movie to know that there will be romantic and sexual confusion here. So that's one thread. Then-- your characters are advocating relentless consumerism, and to make the engine of your story go well, you have to put the perfect victims in the house next door (well played by Glenne Headley and Gary Cole, pictured above, both actors who can vacillate between likability and desperation). Weak, insecure people desperate for approval and respect, without a firm value system of their own. Great-- Moliere himself could go to town with a set-up like this.

Now--these poor marks have spent far beyond their means putting them in danger of losing their abode and being thrown out of Paradise itself. (This probably was funnier when it was written in 2005 or 2006 and we were more worried about excessive credit card debt, not a housing and banking meltdown that brought the entire economy to its knees. Additional support for my hypothesis that this had a long development curve is that 12 people have some sort of producer credit, suggesting a project which passed through many hands before receiving a green light.) What will you do with the comic situation of foolish people at the brink of ruin through their own foolishness, but egged on by your protagonists.

The Joneses chooses this moment to abandon the satiric never-never land it has lived in and jump into a facsimile of the real world, introducing real tragedy and real remorse. I'm not saying this shouldn't be done or that it is impossible. I'm guessing that a Billy Wilder, a Stanley Kubrick, a Paddy Chayefsky, a Robert Altman (especially), perhaps even an Aaron Sorkin could do it (to name the most prominent film satirists that come to mind rapidly). But writer-director David Borte does not have those skills, notwithstanding those of the under-appreciated David Duchovny, one of the most slyly funny actors on the planet.

Worst of all, the shift in tone overemphasizes the fragility of the initial premise, and leads us to think of all the reasons that this could never happen and the scheme could never work, chief among them the fact that human beings are involved.

The other principal missed opportunity, it seems to me, is in the cinematography. Not to direct over Mr. Borte's shoulder, but shouldn't the look of the film ape its central premise? Shouldn't the film look like a super over-produced shiny commercial when the Joneses are touting all their wonderful toys to their "friends" and "neighbors," a look which could be contrasted with the look of the backstage scenes? The film was a low-budget affair, probably shot quickly to accommodate the cast's busy schedules, but with some planning, the production, especially light and sound, could have been engaged to enhance the concept.

Swing and a miss, but a miss not without merit.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

In case you were wondering...

...this is the greatest film ever made.

It just never gets old.

Friday, October 8, 2010

If not black comedy, then at least deep brown

The latest entry in the small genre of Screwed-Up-Matthew-Broderick movies (Election, Wonderful World), Finding Amanda (2008) is about a man trying to save someone when he is the one in need of being saved.

Here Broderick is a compulsive gambler, as well as a narcissist, and he is sent to retrieve and/or reform his niece, who has gone to Vegas and become a prostitute. Not a nude dancer or a cocktail waitress, or any of the other euphemistic-y professions the movies use to allude to prostitutes, but a straight-on prostitute. And she is unrepentant and not a little pleased with her lifestyle choice, even though this is no glamorous Pretty Woman scenario. Does this sound dark? The darkest thing about it is that it is evidently based on the writer/director Peter Tolan's personal history, which makes it even more unlikely for adaptation given two problems--invasion of privacy of one's own family, and a certain lack of perspective about the events. (Is this why Eugene O'Neill insisted that Long Day's Journey Into Night could only be performed many years after his death--that maybe one of his relatives really wasn't dead and might sue him? Or that he might sue himself for portraying himself as a such a weak character?)

Tolan seems to have no hesitation about depicting himself as a clueless jerk, and I suppose the game plan was to cast Matthew Broderick so the audience won't think badly of him. But Matthew is no longer Ferris Bueller. He looks puffy and burned-out, and has the air of trying to trade on charm he used to have, but has no longer. Stranger still is the use of Steve Coogan in a buffoonish role as a casino manager that pretends to like Broderick when he is the chips and summarily tosses him out when he is not.

But the greatest failing of the film is its lack of conviction in its own bad taste. Perhaps because it was based on the writers own experience and own family, he was unwilling to take it where it needed to go. The tag line for the film was, "No really, she's my niece," and while the line is said once or twice in the film, the premise that line implies is never taken up. Broderick's character is never sexually compromised, either in fact nor in the perception of others, with his niece. And although there are hints of violence, a pimp, some drugs, some hysteria over money won and lost, a crisis never arrives, nothing ever blows up. Fiery, planet-imploding disaster was hinted at from the outset, and it doesn't come, and so the limp and predictable ending lets the movie fizzle.

The result is a film that is a bit tacky and none-too-incisive, when Tolan could have delivered black farce on the order of The Ruling Class or Doctor Strangelove. I'm not saying he could have got that movie financed, but I wish he'd tried.

Leaps tall buildings in a single bound -- straight down

According to Siegfried Krakauer's theory of film, film has a natural tendency toward actualities, which is why it gravitates toward things like dancing, athletics and pornography. I often wonder how poor old Siggy would have coped with the age of CGI, which tends to contradict his entire theory.

But if you are of the Kraukauerian bent, or you just like cool stuff, you probably know about the sport of urban running called parkour, which is the basis of a series of films of which District 13: Ultimatum (2009) is the second (I'll be writing about the first one soon). They feature one of the founders of the sport, David Bell, seen in the clip above.

Here is Bell's co-star, martial artist Cyril Raffaelli executing what might be called Van Gogh-Fu:

D13: Ultimatum is one of the near-future, post-apocalyptic stories, which is mostly useful for ignoring questions of plausibility, not to mention using low-budget sets of half-destroyed buildings from the 70s and 80s, a sort of rubble chic.

There are a few flourishes that are fun but unnecessary-- Banlieu (District, or really neighborhood) 13 is ruled by five gangs, each of which has a colorful leader, each with his or her own style of dress and martial arts. In a way it feels extraneous, since it leads away from the parkour heart of the film, but since the sequences are well-executed, they're hard to resent. The only downside is that most of this of the various gangs and there leaders is crammed down to the end of the movie, but really, it's OK, because it left lots of time for Bell and Raffaelli to do their stuff.

It looks like there will never be another Real Jackie Chan movie again--he's just too old to do his thing with the speed and esprit that he did it, and the old stories used to patch together his movies are just too threadbare these days. That being so, the District 13 films--if they do prove to be a real series may be a reasonable substitute. Perhaps not the level of personal humor that Jackie brought--he usually started his films as a panicked, inept fighter, and the films had as much slapstick as fighting. But D13 has its own humor, mostly along the "holy-cow-are-they-really-going-to-do-that-I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that variety." Yes, there's some CGI, but it seems to be used as a way of executing the stunts under controlled conditions, rather than a tool for fakery.

Meanwhile, the Besson film factory continues to prove that neither Americans nor the Chinese have an exclusive on fast-moving, light-hearted action films, with nary a baguette nor a fromage in sight.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lonely hearts club bands of steel

The Honeymoon Killers (1970) is both venerated and attacked as a perverse gorefest, which is odd. It is far tamer than the average PG-13 teen-oriented horror flick, and it is laced with a subtle wit and an affection for both killers and victims would make it completely unsuitable for an exploitation audience. It is probably best considered a pioneer art romance-horror film. It bears some relation to crime-spree love stories such as Gun Crazy, Badlands and True Romance and like some of those, it is loosely based on reported facts. Basing an outrageous film on fact not only provides a filmmaker with a frame and a premise, it may also provide cover from charges of bad taste. "I'm sorry if it's in bad taste. It's just what really happened."

But of course within the parameters of a horrendous story, there are a variety of ways the story can be told. The clip I picked to post above shows both the quality of the acting in the film and the dry humor it aims toward its characters. We begin with the love affair between Martha Beck and a box of candy, as played by the underemployed Shirley Stoler, forever immortalized in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties. Then we see Martha and her husband Ray Fernandez (played by Tony LoBianco, to spend most of the rest of his career as cops), posing as brother and sister, reeling in the silly, vain and stingy widow Janet Fay (played by Mary-Jane Higby). Janet proposes they all go to dinner to celebrate, "on her," then proceeds to take them to a dingy cafeteria, where she remarks on the poor quality of the food and the portions. None of this hilarious scene is in the historical record; it is been created by writer-director Leonard Kastle, who may be strangest figure associated with the film.

Kastle was a well-respected opera composer, whose close friend Warren Steibel got his hands on $150,000 to make an unspecified movie. Steibel thought of making a film about the "Lonely Hearts Killers" case of the 1940s, but lacking the funds for a WGA screenwriter, turned to his friend Kastle, who had written his own librettos. Kastle, game as only an innocent and a neophyte can be, wrote the brilliant, balanced and strange script that is the basis of The Honeymoon Killers. Neither Steibel or Kastle were part of the film-making establishment and did not concern themselves with questions of genre or marketing (or censorship) that preoccupy distributors. Now they just had to find a director that shared their sensibility, to render these horrific acts as they appeared to their obsessed perpetrators.

They engaged Martin Scorsese on the strength of some of his student films, and a few of Scorsese's shots are still in the film, notably a characteristic long take incorporating a complex camera move that appears in the first sequence of the film. But that very complexity was incompatible with the low budget and short schedule, and Steibel turned to Kastle to execute the film he had already designed. In the spirit of "why not" that seems to have governed the entire project, Kastle took over the reins, and has thus earned for himself perhaps the only 1.000 batting average in the history of film direction.

I relate this story because it is a key to the aesthetic of the film, which reduces murder to a low-rent way of making a living for two people so obsessed with each other that the whole rest of the world is nothing but an obstacle to their romance. (The real Martha, who at first was supposed to have been one of Ray's "marks," dumped her two kids at the Salvation Army in order to be with Ray.) Hence the film confronts the ugly reality that people are often very hard to kill, especially when you don't have overwhelming weapons and they don't want to be killed. These may not be the most horrific murders in film history, but they are among the slowest and most difficult this side of Torn Curtain, especially the messy and inconvenient killing of Janet Fay. Lacking a proper weapon, Martha bashes her head in with a hammer, but that doesn't kill her at once, and several more assaults are necessary before she gives out. Their final downfall is a by-product not of police work but mistakes made by Martha due to her jealousy over Ray's relationship with a victim-to-be.

Finally in jail, Martha is relatively happy and at peace, since Ray no longer has access to other women. They can enjoy a pure spiritual love, as they are destined to. Is this tasteless? Yes, of course, but life is in bad taste, too--the film often turns its head decorously at some of Martha and Ray's most depraved behavior, as if it is afraid we will think badly of them.

The two other films based on the case, Deep Crimson and Lonely Hearts, bring the qualities of Honeymoon Killers into stronger relief. Neither of the others had the courage to represent Martha in anything like her real physical unattractiveness and her real vulnerability and devotion to Ray. Trying to jam the story into the conventions of noir bend the characters and their motivations out of shape. Clearly, Salma Hayek is quite a different femme fatale than Shirley Stoler.

The one big misstep is the use of Mahler's music in the score. The problem is more technological than aesthetic. The choice of Mahler makes sense--Martha sees herself in the center of a sweeping romantic melodrama, not a grubby little murderer. But the large-scale orchestral recordings of Mahler had to be mixed down to a single track and pushed behind the dialogue and effects track on a 1970-era optical track--definitely lo-fi. This is akin to watching Lawrence of Arabia on your phone. Actually, it's worse, because it turns the enormous emotional landscape of Mahler's music into an overheated buzz. The effect is not to surround Martha and Ray with drama, but to make it sound as if they were driving past an apartment with Mahler playing on the radio. Still, it is a better choice than the usual sort of movie-faux-jazz that disfigures similar films such as In Cold Blood.

Honeymoon Killers is one of those artistic anomalies, a work without obvious sources or followers. Literally one of a kind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Anti-social network

Most of the conversation swirling around The Social Network (2010) concerns the question as to whether it is "true." This is absurd to begin with, as the "truth" of human interactions is ultimately undiscoverable. There is no unbiased data. There is no science here, to be tested in double blind procedures. All we have is "he said", "he said." True, there are bits of what we laughingly call objective reality which are omitted, combined, reordered and, at times, invented in order to tell "lies like truth." Which leads us to the only answerable question: "Is it a good story well told?"

Yes, if you like Aaron Sorkin's brand of fast funny patter, often doubling back on itself, leaping forward and occasionally slamming characters with juvenile but effective sarcasm. The first scene is as effective an announcement of style as I've ever seen. It says, "wake up and keep up. This is going to go quickly and we're not going to repeat it." Movie theater snack bars should be pushing caffeine drinks to get audiences up to speed.

Oddly, the scene may or may not state the theme of the film. In it, protagonist Zuckerberg is obsessing about admission to Harvard final clubs, a near-impossible feat for a Jew, even in 2004 (according to this film--again, I am not going to go into what is or is not true about Harvard. Being an Amherst grad, I will naturally assume the worst.) So the film seems to announce itself to be about class and or ethnicity systems.

But soon the film shifts ground from race/class rivalries to those of technological expertise. (Let me point out that the expertise here is of the engineering variety. There are no genuine scientific breakthroughs involved in this story--merely the intersection between marketing and code writing.) Then the rivalry shifts to the question of monetization, capitalization and overall business acumen (and the male aggression encoded therein). Only over time is the true theme of the movie revealed--the ever-evolving methods of measuring relative status. It moves from social status, to mental skill to money skill, but finally all are surrogates for macho. (At one point, Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster asks the waitress for the check, and I turned to my wife and said, "and a tape measure, please, as long as we've taken them out.")

The screenplay also reflects the subjective nature of the facts, framed as it is by the depositions pursuant to two lawsuits. (Applause for the filmmakers who recognize that most lawsuits are determined in their discovery phase, eschewing the dramatic trial scenes which never happened.) This seems appropriate, for while the actual framework is not taken the book on which the film is based is, it is in a sense a product of one of the lawsuits, being told solely from the viewpoint of one plaintiff who claimed to have been squeezed out of Facebook. (It the lack of access to Zuckerberg is a source of contention around the film, as Zuckerberg comes off as a jerk, but not quite as big a jerk as everyone else.)

What is truly surprising about the film is that it is directly so self-effacingly by David Fincher, the super-stylist of Aliens, 7even, and Fight Club, the film that may have defined a generation as thoroughly as Catcher In The Rye defined its generation. Aaron Sorkin is one of the few brand-name writers to the public, thanks primarily to Sports Night and The West Wing. His only predecessors may be writers Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling (all three created by television), who could receive more attention in press and marketing materials than the directors of their films (and even possessory credits at times). Paddy Chayefsky was usually served by theater-oriented directors such as Arthur Hiller and Sidney Lumet, who were unafraid of smart people making fast smart talk for long periods of time. But Chayefsky came a cropper when Ken Russell was engaged to direct Altered States. It's hard to understand how this happened. Russell had never shown much respect for texts, and Altered States was no exception. The script was so mangled in Chayefsky's opinion that he had his name removed from the film.

Fincher is a great visual stylist, but he does not seem to have declared war on writers, and indeed, he lets Sorkin have at least the first half of the film to himself, restricting his signature to dark, backlit scenes and some very crisp cutting. Interestingly, when the first sunlit scene arrives, one of a crew match on the Thames, Sorkin and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth take the bit in their teeth and turn this somewhat pastoral sport into a grinding, eye-gouging affair. Soon thereafter the film dissolves into alternating scenes of decadence and law offices, and we are back to all talk all the time. One must assume that Fincher took his brief as maintaining the pace and the dark atmosphere and dialing down the self-pity that seems to flow around so many of the real-life characters. All praise to Fincher as the main who knows when his special talents are required and to what degree.

Presumably Mr. Fincher also hired Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross for the extremely original and appropriately twitchy movie score. It would be interesting to know who came up with the nervous scratchy sounds that accompany Zuckerberg's trip across campus at the beginning of the second sequence of the film; in any case it is exciting to hear, more than 80 years into the history of sound-synchronized film, people moving past the lush orchestras and pop pap in order to find new ways to use sound to enhance story-telling.

Clearly we now have two contenders for best screenplay in next year's Oscar ceremony, Inception and The Social Network. Both are sources for huge amounts of internet buzz, even more than is usual for new films. Maybe they should just count up who has the most "Like"s on Facebook.

UPDATE: Three great posts by Jim Emerson on The Social Network here, here and here. I especially like the third, where he looks at the visual code of Social Network. You should be reading his blog, Scanners, regularly anyway.