Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Visible conflict

Perhaps one definitional difference between genre and art is that genre is content with the depiction of conflict and its resolution for its own sake. "Art" could be defined as the reaction to such conflict and its working out, whether the reaction is that of individual characters, a society or both. In such a manner, art can conveniently be built on the foundations of genre, without disturbing it.

The delight and trap for genre pieces is that, being rooted in depictions of the same conflicts being played out in the same way, court a stifling uniformity. (Another perspective would focus on the ceremonial quality of such depictions, especially relevant with films from more ceremonial cultures than our own.) Ip Man 2 (2010) addresses the problem of potential monotony head on and frames its conflict in purely visual terms to an extent that would delight Hitchcock.

The film's conflict is that of East versus West; the theme is local pride among the Chinese of Hong Kong in the teeth of domination by Western colonial powers. The ideas play out in breathtakingly simple form: A boxer named Twister (who should have been called "Crusher" like those brutes in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) has arrived at Sammo Hung's club to box with some other Westerner (whom, we never find out). Instead, he insults Sammo and fights him to the death, leaving the Ip Man (Donnie Yen) to defend the honor of kung fu and Chinese culture in general.

Thus, the East-West conflict is not something merely described, discussed, reacted to, perhaps dramatized in a montage of vignettes. It is palpable and manifest in every frame of the last half of the film. The very mixing of the two styles of boxing makes visible not only differences in culture, but in the aspects of personal character valued by those cultures. The West favors shows of strength, bluster, and overwhelming force; the East favors skill, surprise, and exploiting the opponent's vulnerabilities.

An overheated Hong-Kong Rocky? sure. But cinematic? Textbook case. And it doesn't hurt that Donnie Yen is such a compelling and charismatic performer.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Somebody get Aristotle in here for a rewrite"

As it happens, I am teaching bits of Aristotle's Poetics to my AP Literature class. A lot of it seems so elementary and self-evident, and yet apparently it isn't. For instance, Aristotle writes that a play is an imitation of an action. Not a person, not an idea, an action. Yet major expensive films omit that on a regular basis.

Take The Conspirator (2011), about the sham military trial and summary hanging of Mary Surratt, accused of being part of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy by virtue of being Southern, being related to one of the conspirators and of living among angry wounded people (Americans) desperately in need of scapegoats. Ignoring the prologue, which shows the various parts of the conspiracy in motion, at the outset of the story, Mary Surratt is going to be tried before a kangaroo court and be hanged. Not only do those facts never change, but the purported protagonist, Surratt's appointed lawyer never manages to change them. The second hour of the film runs out of narrative gas so badly that it repeats the same scene three or four times. Stanton tells Aiken nothing can be done. Seward tells Aiken nothing can be done. The other lawyers tell Aiken nothing can be done. Round and round the wheels spin, throwing up mud and going nowhere.

And then there is Dean Spanley (2008), which I will, exercising the utmost self-restraint, not describe as a shaggy-dog story, but which also would earn Aristotle's scorn. It also happens that I am teaching a creative writing course (yes, my teaching life is quite wonderful at the moment), and I am trying to hammer into the students the importance of making a timely promise to the reader (or audience) as to where the story is going to go. The classic rule in film is that by ten minutes in, you have to clue the audience in as to what the film is going to be about, what the objective is, what the conflict will be.

Dean Spanley lets an hour go by before it settles down and decides what story it wants to tell. It does have quite a touching and remarkable payoff, but not one worth that arid first hour. At least 45 minutes of the movie are engaged in pure misdirection, whether or not intentional it is hard to say. But it makes it hard to invest in the emotional stakes the film is really interested in. Once again, filmmakers have attempted to cram one hour's worth of story into two slam-bang hours of middle-aged men sipping liqueurs.

People, these are not just rules for their own sakes. Breaking the rules of screenplay structure has consequences! You're playing with fire! Or in the case of Dean Spanley, some rather tepid and dingy bathwater.
On more purely cinematic territory, why was everything in the past blurry, grainy and distorted in color? Was the air that different back when? This penchant, as displayed in The Conspirator for arty visual treatment to suggest earlier eras (it's even worse with future noir films) started, to my recollection, with The Godfather, which stood for the proposition that everything in the past used to be more yellow. That was bad, but it at least had to be planned in advance so that filters could be put on lenses. Now directors can decide in post-production that the whole world is topsy-turvy colorwise, which raises the question as to whether future cinematographers will need any competence at all, given that images can be reframed, objects added or removed and color timing completely reconfigured at will.

And are there no American actors other than Paul Giamatti (who seems particularly contemporary to me) who can portray people who lived long ago? Look at the picture at the top of this blog, and there is an Englishman facing off with a Scot, pretending to be 1865 Americans. I think SAG needs to step in here. (At least they got John Cullum, as authentic a Virginian as you can find anywhere, to play a Southerner.)

I think the English can share their objection, given that in Dean Spanley, English people are portrayed by Ozzies and Kiwis in a quite indiscriminate way. What next? Carmen sung by a soprano? Or a bass?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hard as steel in Pittsburgh. And Cleveland.

This is from the opening sequence of Kill The Irishman (2011), a hard-nosed, hard-boiled, hard-knuckled semi-noir gangster picture set in, of all places Cleveland (because it is based on a true story that happened there). This is not an innovative or surprising movie. It has Paul Sorvino and Vincent D'Onofrio playing Italian mobsters, which is hardly a new idea. (I think you should be able to just buy ready-made clips of Paul Sorvino playing a big mafia don and just paste them into your movie without troubling Mr. Sorvino to come to your set or read your script, which seems hardly necessary in the circumstances.)

Irishman falls solidly in the category of "underdog union stiff who becomes union leader then becomes mad dog gangster who's nice to kids and old ladies." Jimmy Cagney would have been right at home here. But Cagney would also have to acknowledge that Ray Stevenson, who has been a big, solid, completely dependable, yet surprisingly nuanced actor in international film and television projects for a while is, in this film at least, a big fat movie star. He is utterly riveting, and makes all the contradictory parts of the character fit together. (Speaking of big and fat, Val Kilmer is becoming frightening. Doesn't he have any friends or family who will tell him what is happening to him? He is becoming so puffy, he is losing control of the facial muscles required for acting.)

Here's what you need to know about Kill the Irishman: a lot of big guys hit each other in the face hard, and an incredible number of bombs go off. Mostly car bombs (one of which provides Christopher Walken with perhaps his best movie death ever), but at one point the baddies take an entire house out. And as best as I can tell, it's neither a miniature, nor CG. This relatively low-budget movie blows a real house up. Or down, as the case may be. It's worth the price of admission. Other than the lack of nudity, Joe Bob Briggs would LOVE this movie. I appreciate that it stays hard and tough straight to the end. They don't round the edges off the protagonist, Danny Greene, nor even elevate him to a tragic hero. He gets a lot of people blown up until someone blows him up. To me, movie-wise, that's money in the bank.

Speaking of money in the bank, that's on the mind of Russell Crowe in The Next Three Days (2010), who, in one of the best sequences, does not rob a bank. Yes, yes, I know, the movies are filled with scenes of people not robbing banks. But this one is really fine, especially since there is not one word of dialogue about anybody robbing a bank. But his decision, his plan, and his reconsideration of that plan are all conveyed without a word. Bravo, director Paul Haggis, who as a writer, would have been expected to spew words at such an important point, only Mr. Haggis seems to understand how movies work.

No, I don't buy that Pittsburgh community college teacher Crowe can suddenly become a resourceful, lightning-reflexed commando-spy as he rescues his wife from a life sentence for murder. No, the idea that a couple running from the law would take along their 6-year-old child is a bit of a strain. And using Liam Neeson in a single scene to deliver some exposition is both insulting and a waste of natural resources. But the movie goes at a good clip, especially in the second half and Russell Crowe has the movie-star gift of being able to clearly represent what he is thinking without a word or a gesture, which is useful because the story does not give him anyone he can share his plans with (a pretty bold choice in itself). Much of the fun of the first half is just wondering, "what the devil is he doing that for?" and awaiting the pay-off you know, given the iron laws of film narrative, will be coming.

Here's another thing to like: Elizabeth Banks really seems as though she would be worth it. If your choice was whether or not to break the law, risk life and limb and go into permanent exile in order to save say, Sandra Bullock or even Katherine Heigl, from an unjust punishment, you might have to give it some thought. Maybe it's just me (and I don't even care for blondes much), but Elizabeth Banks, who has been such a loyal buddy in all those Judd Apatow movies, seems worth the risk. And I don't think that's a little thing, as movies go.

I do wish the movie had given us a more interesting head cop to chase Crowe, although perhaps casting a star in that role would have been cliche, and, with an ensemble of unknowns one can enjoy the illusion that these somewhat bumbling cops are a long-standing team who really know each other. Brian Dennehy, the tight-lipped father of the tight-lipped Crowe (good thing these actors are not paid by the word), has, unlike the universe, stopped expanding, and now looks ill, for the opposite reason that he used to look ill. Perhaps a completely healthy-looking Dennehy would be disturbing.

Neither film was very successful. I suspect Kill The Irishman didn't get the marketing to overcome the fact that it's star is not yet established as a leading man and the true story it is based on is neither well known, startling or heart-warming. The wrap-up of The Next Three Days was probably unsatisfying for American audiences; it is established that one smart cop has figured out what really happened and that Elizabeth Banks is innocent, but he fails to uncover the exculpatory evidence which is indeed yet to be found and we presume that Crowe, Banks and son will be forever on the run, which is sad-making for most people.

But they are both kick-ass movies that move and keep moving for most of their running times, and better yet, both feature generous authentic helpings of flyover country which is so rarely on display in mainstream American film. Maybe somehow people in the future will figure out that not everything in America happened in New York or Los Angeles.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Straw Dogs actually corresponds to its reputation

OK, if Straw Dogs (1971) is the basis of your argument that Sam Peckinpah was a poet of violence, I'll buy it. I've been hearing that for years about Peckinpah, and have been exploring his oeuvre in the hope of seeing some poetry, but instead there was mostly cheap titillation. Most repugnant of all is the endless, pointless and phony ketchup-fest at the end of The Wild Bunch which demonstrated nothing except that a 72-frame-per-second camera must never fall into the wrong hands. Such a sequence doesn't say anything about violence, except that it is just as boring as anything else when it goes on too long. (It doesn't help when it doesn't look or feel anything like real violence, which comes quickly and is shocking, not balletic.)

As advertised, Straw Dogs is truly about the horribly corrosive effect violence has on the human psyche. It is not a veiled soft-porn advertisement for violence, tut-tutting while showing even more (shocking!) examples. The violence in Straw Dogs is really awful and awfully real.

Some surprises. Straw Dogs is best example of a theatrical use of mise en scene outside the work of Sidney Lumet. At least half of the film takes place in the living room (or parlor) space seen in the clip above, yet without one repeated angle, and throughout a clear sense of how stifling and confining that space is. In addition to the brittle, virtually non-sequitur dialogue between the Dustin Hoffman character and his wife, played by Susan George, Peckinpah shoots and cuts the scenes so as to emphasize the awkwardness, the sense of disconnect between them. Like most really good dialogue cutters, Peckinpah spends more time on the listeners than the speakers. (Is there anything more amateurish than a scene made of alternating one-shots of people talking?)

It is easy to see today that audiences were misled by the casting of Dustin Hoffman in 1971, who was not only the best-known name in the cast (he still is, but he is no longer a superstar, and seems relieved about that), but had a profile as a loveable schlep. Even Ratso Rizzo, greasy and whiny as he is, is non-threatening and is capable of earning deep affection. But he is the villain of Straw Dogs, more than the local bullies who threaten him. Narcisstic and casually cruel, the story pushes him past his everyday psychological sadism into actual physical cruelty, revealing his true nature. Critics in the past thought Peckinpah was advocating this liberation of the male psyche through violence, whereas he is simply stating an unpleasant fact. Absent all other factors, men seek conflict, and do not feel the conflict is satisfied except through violent action.

This is hardly a radical formulation. John Ford, the great Classicist of American film built most of his Westerns, including My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on this idea, and his great romantic comedy The Quiet Man is about a man learning, with some difficulty, that there is another approach to life. Yet no one accuses Ford of glorying in violence.

It's true that Peckinpah is never as clear about this in his other films as he is in Straw Dogs. Many others, including The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett could, looked at superficially, be accused of violence porn. But I don't know how Peckinpah could be any clearer about his point than he is in Straw Dogs, other than to have Alexander Scourby come out at the end and say, "You see, folks, violence is very bad. Don't settle your troubles with violence, lest you reveal the hollowness in the center of your blasted, benighted souls, you bottom-feeding scum." But then, the people who seemed to be confused 40 years ago were professional critics, and as William Goldman said, with cruelty and truth, criticism could not occupy a first-rate mind for ten minutes.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Snazzy modernist house built on smelly dump

If you're going to have a cool shiny sci-fi premise and shoot it all Matrix-y and Fight Club-y, you ought to try and have a halfway-decent premise, not a tired old canard of an excuse. I'm talking about the discredited idea that one only uses 10% of one's brain, and that the other 90% is not available to us. (This doesn't make sense even on its own terms, without trying to prove or disprove it. Why an organism evolve so as to have 1000% of necessary brain capacity?)

The film gets worse from there. First, the hero is going to do a lot of despicable things, so it is necessary to get an actor who is handsome and charming. Instead, they got lizard face sleazeball Bradley Cooper, who looks a comedy group's version of a leading man, not a real leading man. And he has all the charm of the guy who used to stand behind and to the right of the guy in high school who gave nerds swirleys. He is a complete nonentity who the studios are trying to promote into a star the way they tried with Bill Paxton 15 years ago. Notice how people swarm to Bill Paxton movies? These actors are just ciphers that directors plug into roles so as not to upstage those directors and their schmancy tricks.

The picture quickly lurches into a ramshackle remake of X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, which is to receive an official remake next year; that is, a medical breakthrough gives the protagonist extraordinary powers at a greater and greater cost to his mental and physical health. Unfortunately, Limitless, being a 2011 movie has to have a "happy" ending, requiring it to twist itself into knots and negate its own story.

And it seems Robert DeNiro has decided to emulate his role model, Marlon Brando, picking up easy money by sleepwalking through parts for which he is miscast for films seeking names, whether or not those names fit the story or the role.

Sorry if this post is more judgmental than I like to be, and less observational, but the only thing to observe is the cynical, mechanical way a project like this is put together. That is, not created, but "put together" like a Chevy or a Frankenstein monster.

Monday, October 3, 2011

McCarthy pulls the hat trick

With Win Win (2011) co-writer-director Tom McCarthy has pulled the filmmaking hat trick and dodged the sophomore, or any other slump. If he decides to release home videos of his cat next year, I will go.

As has been my habit recently, a few disconnected observations:

Paul Giamatti is especially good at two modes: the guy who is already exasperated at what you're about to say -- he uses that for his villains and for John Adams; and the guy who knows he's going to be found out, and that it's too late to do anything but wait for it all to come down on him. He employs the latter in Win Win.

I am prejudiced toward any movie not set in New York, Los Angeles or shot in Toronto or Vancouver pretending to be New York or Los Angeles. By the way, I've seen a number of films set in Montreal, but has there ever been a film shot in Toronto which was set in Toronto? Anyway, it made me said that Long Island had to stand in for New Jersey. Still, there's a way that our houses and streets are set in this part of country that we don't generally see in the movies, something that almost screams, "this is not a movie, this is really happening." I know it isn't, but I like the illusion that it is.

McCarthy has achieved the rare accomplishment of placing a "gun in the drawer in the first act" and never pulling it out again, in violation of all conventions of play- and screenwriting. I refer to the threatening furnance in the basement. Maybe it should have its own movie (a horror film, of course).

I'm in favor of more films about high school wrestling. The more we can divorce wrestling from the trashmouth vaudeville they have on TV, the better. But it makes no sense that the leading character, played by Alex Shaffer, an excellent wrestler who plays an excellent wrestler, claims to wrestle as if he were escaping something that was trapping him. Surely only us bad wrestlers (which includes me and the co-authors of the script of Win Win) felt that way. Good wrestlers seem to float over the surface of their opponents, as does Shaffer in this film.

Non-actors like Shaffer can only work on film next to great actors like Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. A non-actor working alongside actors awash in artificial technique would seem too small, too understated and subject to criticism for not acting. But put an actor next to a Giamatti and the understatement will blend in seamlessly.

I can't wait for the doctoral theses soon to be produced about the "McCarthy trilogy." I just hope Mr. McCarthy never reads any of them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It's a matter of time and space

Watching Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) put into clear focus for me exactly why opera is never really going to be cinematic, albeit I enjoy quite a few opera movies. Like all adaptations, part of the problem is about space, but opera has a special relationship with time that cinema does not share.

Hitchcock limned the essential nature of theater on film, the compression of all events into a space which should be preserved if the filmmaker is to take any power from the play being adapted, rather than dissipating that compression by "opening the play up." The point of Dial M For Murder or Wait Until Dark is that the heroine, and by extension, the viewer, is trapped in a room with a murderer. If you can open the door and run out to the street, the peril is seriously diminished, if not eliminated.

And indeed, many plays are limited or telescoped in time. Alan Ayckbourn has even written three plays which take place at the same time, in parallel, in three adjacent locales. (They have even been produced in such a way as to prove that they perfectly dovetail -- an exit in one play corresponds with an entrance in another, and so forth). But the addition of music -- and nearly constant music -- gives opera a peculiar relationship with time.

First of all, opera abandons the pretense of simulating life in any way. In an instant, we recognize that we are in a rarefied world of artifice -- that everything present is standing in for something else, that nothing has been brought here from the real world. At once, we are in trouble with the cinema aesthetic. Still, fantasy has been made to work on film, especially in the Rings films and the Harry Potter series. But music has specific demands on time itself. It requires a specifed time to unfold, which may or may not correspond with the dramatic value of that moment or the words being sung to that music. In short, opera, and especially operatic dialogue, takes a relatively long time to unfold, and the adapter must either weave a cinematic design through that preset duration, or must simply "fill" the time. And cinema which is filling time is frittering its most hard-won and precious resource.

Rock opera compounds the problem. Whereas in classical opera, the music is filled with harmonic and contrapuntal complexities to engage the ear when the eye is not being refreshed, typically in rock or any music with its roots in the blues, each 4-bar phrase has only 2 or 2-1/2 bars worth of melody. Think of Bessie Smith singing a phrase and Louis Armstrong echoing and embroidering her melody in the interval before her next line. Rock usually dispenses with the embroidery and just "holds still" for 1-1/2 to 2 bars. Again, this is antithetical to film. The usual solution on film is to decorate those moments with theater-style staging: characters pace around, gesticulate and generally thrash around until the next line comes along. Thankfully, Repo! eschews the kind of cheap doggerel in the dialogue sequences favored by Jesus Christ Superstar and other dismal rock operas; the dialogue is sharper and able to move more swiftly than usual. But it is telling that even with this higher level of skill and attention to theatrical detail, we still are not convinced we're seeing a movie. It seems to be a movie of a performance, rather than an aesthetic object complete in and of itself.

There is much to like in Repo!, especially the singing of Anthony Head (best known for Buffy on television), the quavering but resilient tones of the aging Paul Sorvino, a spacey performance by Sarah Brightman and the surprising aptitude of Paris Hilton, whose singing and characterization are surprisingly professional. The notion of a cartel who finances organ transplants and reserves the right to re-possess on defaulted organs is a promising one, although we don't see any reason for those repossesions except cruelty or perversity. (That is, the story would make more sense if there were specific recipients demanding specific organs, and the air of moral ambiguity would be increased of those recipients were actually worthy and sympathetic.) The whole affair has a gratuitously goth-emo element which cries out for contextualization.

But no matter how much more coherent or well-structured the story might be. Even with good lyrics and energetic music, Repo! may do some good deeds aesthetically, but unlike Pinocchio, it will never become a real movie.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The negative argument for irony

If it does nothing else, I hope Hobo With A Shotgun (2011) puts to rest any critical reservations with regard to the self-conscious reworking of genre engaged in by Quentin Tarantino and his comperes. That layer of meta-comment and irony is exactly what makes QT's films worth re-watching, thinking about and discussing, whereas his templates are cinematic potato chips, to be quickly consumed without expectation of nourishment or indeed any lasting effect other than faint nausea.

The proof is that when a purer, more authentic hommage to 80s trash comes along, like HWAS it is quickly evident that it is utterly lacking the kind of vision of resonance that keeps it continually engaging. Yes, the premise is unbelievable, and in a sloppy way that no self-respecting would tolerate. A guy who dispenses justice with a gun has to be good at it and smart or someone will shoot him. That is the whole point of a great film like The Gunfighter. The use of a gun is not a resolution, but the beginning of a string of questions, both narratively and morally. I mean, come on, anybody could shoot this hobo in the back. Yes, the villains are idiots and buffoons (which also weakens the film, because although they are cruel and ruthless, they could be defeated by a reasonably crafty group of 7th graders).

So the makers of Hobo had the good sense to hire Rutger Hauer, an actor of presence and resonance, but not enough sense to engage that resonance in any meaningful way. He just stomps and snorts his way through some poorly staged violence, with the cheapest, most unconvincing blood gags this side of your neighbor kid's backyard videos just because. And to top it off, the film pretends to move toward a grand apocalyptic confrontation just peters out with a few more feeble gun blasts. No gigantic blood orgy, no jeopardy for the protagonist, no reversals or surprises, and no scaling-up of the conflict.

Frankly, if a film revisiting a genre of an earlier generation is not going to be mega- (like Spielberg) it has to be meta- (like Tarantino). Otherwise, why not just turn to the originals, which are readily available, and have the advantage of being pure, authentic and unself-conscious. What I'm trying to say kids, is if you really think you want to see HWAS, just skip it, and rent a Billy Jack movie.

And by the way, how come the rising generation still resists Westerns? They are obviously still looking for a way to tell stories about communities that have no super-structure of law and civil order, a community in the process of forming its ideas of good, evil and justice without too much history to encumber it. So they have to invent post-apocalyptic scenarios, whereas as the Western template is ready-made and would permit a filmmaker to have a dialogue with his predecessors (and not reinvent the wheel). It is the perfect stage on which to explore mythos. Perhaps they are afraid that the Western has a lot of rules they don't know or want to know or want to bother to master. That should be no limitation. After all, the Italians came along in the 1960's and threw all the rules out the window, keeping only the landscape, and even altering that landscape to a Spanish desert instead of the Southwestern mesas.

Seriously, I can't wait for the Quentin Tarantino Western.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't nobody know how to tell a story no more?

Maybe it's better to look at Source Code (2011) as a great little trainbound "B" movie like the original Narrow Margin, because it effectively ends at about the 70-minute mark. Hero Jack Gyllenhall solves the mystery, foils and captures the villain and saves Chicago. (Hope that's not a spoiler for anybody, but do you really think a little movie like this had the guts to destroy a major American city? It's released by Summit, for heaven's sake. It takes a Paramount or Disney to destroy major real estate.
Seriously, and I do mean seriously, screenwriter Ben Ripley, whose first produced screenplay this is after 16 years in the business, and Duncan Jones, who made the similarly and more successfully claustrophobic Moon, have thing they want to say about love, identity and indeed what it is to be human. Problem is, they never really signalled us that this was the way they were going to go. We signed on for a popcorn roller coaster ride, not a meditation on mortality, and the solution to the mystery of why what starts as a cracking good thriller, Groundhog Day On A Train With A Bomb only grossed $54 million is answered by the 20-minute appendix, which even on its own terms makes no sense.

You see, Jake Gyllenhall is inhabiting another guy's body. Not really, because it's all some of kind of simulation-that's-not-a-simulation kind of thing. Anyway, to "the girl" he looks like some other guy she knows only slightly, but inside he's Mr. JG. And she falls in love with that hybrid guy in 8 minutes, and they will spend eternity together in simulated-Chicago-heaven. Really, there's nobody that can explain this higgledy piggledy ending. I'm sure they think it's profound and something out of The Twilight Zone but it's just ill-conceived, poorly executed and made no sense to begin with.

Here's the deal -- you gotta dance with the guy what brung ya. Walk in a thriller -- you can do some awesome non-thriller stuff, meaning of life and all that stuff -- but you have to keep the thrills going right to the end, or you're going to get a reputation, and not a good one.

Another case in point, Rango (2011). Of course the big question here is just who this movie was made for, other than Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski's friends. For one thing, much of its time is taken up with a parody of both classical and spaghetti Westerns. Yeah, that's what Westerns need, a good kidding. First of all, nobody's ever done it before. Second, it's such a robust and popular genre today. I can't wait for Mr. Verbinski's scorching take-off on silent German mountain movies, and then a hot rip on Ruth Chatterton, whose popularity waned around 1932. That'll be a hoot!

As if that was not enough of an entertainment treat, the movie can't even decide what its story is. There is a rule that movies need to make a promise to the audience within the first ten minutes, narratively-speaking. Rango not only doesn't promise, it's still being coy and hinty past the 20-minute mark. This was bad enough in the 3rd Pirates movie (I wasn't masochistic enough to see the 4th) when Johnny D wandered around in a white void for 20 or 25 minutes for no apparent reason. I remember there was a lizard in that, too.

But animation is best when it is most efficient. Rango is positively roccoco. At one point, the characters all got on their birds and began to ride (they're too small to ride horses) and before they got where they were going, so many things happened I couldn't remember what their intended destination and purpose was. Clearly, this movie was intended for 82-year-old teenage boys, who can still get excited about things but can't remember what or why.

Johnny Depp is, however, a terrific voice actor, and that is part of the problem. He doesn't settle on a voice we can identify as the hero of the story. It's OK for Robin Williams as the Genie, to scramble through all his canned impressions of extinct celebrities. You're not rooting for the Genie (at least not much). But Rango is supposed to be the center of the story and I know he's a chameleon, but the film doesn't even make that fact interesting or endearing.

The curious thing is that Rango is funny all the way through. My wife and I laughed consistently in nearly every scene. There was always a clever reference, an hilarious non-sequitur, a peculiar bit of characterization. But nothing amounted to anything, nothing added up, and the stakes never seemed to matter (although we were talking about water, which means survival, nobody seemed committed to anything more than the next joke). It's like sitting down to a meal and then eating a whole bag of potato chips. (Not as if I've ever actually done that. I'm just imagining what it would be like, you see.) Lord, knows them chips is tasty but when you're done you feel oogy and sick and bloated and your body is still craving nutrition, just as your mind will crave an actual story after 107 (!!!) minutes of Rango.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

You say "slick" as if it were a bad thing...

I admit it. I was hoping that the protagonist of The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) would be a guy who admired and quoted Abraham Lincoln, not a guy who rides around L.A. in a gas guzzler. Still, it is a pleasure to see a film and a leading actor who both exhibit well-earned confidence, falling just short of swagger. And somehow the earnest version of Matthe McConnaughey is more convincing when it peaks out from behind a slick and self-assured facade.

Producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi are to be commended for putting their confidence in director Brad Furman, whose rather thin resume makes such commercial polish and pace less than a certainty. Furman does not appear to be one of those Hollywood hotshots who's dying to sell out without having had any integrity to begin with, like those maestros of emptiness, Brett Ratner and McG, And the casting suggests that director and producers had ambitions, especially the presence of the ever-reliable, ever-rewarding William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei and Frances Fisher.

But the piece of casting that will likely continue to resonate is Ryan Phillipe as a relentless sociopath. Phillipe has always seemed a blank surface, and his lack of traction as a leading man could be ascribed to the sense of deadness behind his eyes. Here that deadness is put to excellent use, and I suspect that he is now as permanently set as, if not necessarily a villain, certainly an unreliable character, just as Tony Perkins always seemed about to go "off" after Pyscho.

Yet, with all this skill, why does Lincoln Lawyer feel like just another movie, and not another Verdict? First of all, the film feels as though it were being deliberately set up as the first of a series, although at this point that is evidently unlikely (it is based on a book which is the first of a series, but as I write this the follow-up is more likely to be on television than in the movie house). And like a series character, Mick Haller doesn't learn or change much over the course of the film. The plot lines are neatly tied up, and of course, no character is introduced unless they will serve the storyline at some later time. Incorporating something for the sake of context, texture and character revelation is alien to this kind of storytelling machine -- hence, the whiff of television lingers around what is a very skillful feature film.

And the bad guy is both generic and sui generis; either way, he is someone we are never going to meet -- the evil will never threaten us the viewers. It is purely a mystery-thriller that never threatens or challenges the viewer, the way a whodunnit feels so cozy despite its implied violence.

We might have been satisfied with this sort of thing on the big screen 40 years ago, but despite the high skill employed, which is why although the film seems designed for sequels, Mick Haller will probably find his home in our homes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mach One Mock Doc

This is the trailer for a partially improvised documentary about a year in the life of four public school teachers (and administrators) called Chalk (2006). I don't like to use trailers because they are not the movie and often contain things that are not in the film or distort the tone of the film. But this trailer is reasonably accurate and gives a sense of the upbeat deadpan tone of Chalk. Its immersive quality is reminiscent of Christopher Guest's films but at no time do the characters have the distance and occasional aloofness that sometimes visit the Guest films.

These teachers are not above the events in the movie -- they're not above anything. Neither are they caricatures or buffoons. Well, one is a buffoon, but the film is not out to be cruel. And never has the terrible yet sometimes rewarding experience of the first year of teaching been so well represented on film.

A real, grass-roots mockumentary like Chalk highlights how TV series like The Office and Modern Family, funny as they are, have bastardized the form they sprung from. Chalk uses only a handful of professional actors, filling out the cast with friends, family and real teachers and students. One of the funniest teachers, a seriously repressed neurotic, is played by the film's assistant director. None of the teachers is dishonest or contemptuous, or a lout. They are genuinely trying to do their best. Some are under-experienced, some are overworked, some lack perspective on themselves and one teacher is just not very bright. That happens, although not as often as politicians would have you believe. But they all want to do well by the students.

[I didn't see the Cameron Diaz atrocity Bad Teacher because I refuse to patronize a movie that says that a drunken lazy slut can become a teacher without any accountability. Sorry if I'm a little over-sensitive, but that just doesn't strike me as funny. What if they made a film about a drug-addled terrorist who became a uniformed police officer? Does that make any sense? Is it funny? Neither was Bad Teacher's premise.]

Chalk is unique for maintaining the teachers' points of view. Students do not become significant or notable characters. (This is not true in a teacher's working life, but they had to keep the thing down to 90 minutes.) This manages to defuse the traps of sentiment and melodrama that something like Up the Down Staircase was inclined to fall into.

But what I've failed to say is that not one minute goes by in this film that doesn't make you laugh. Or at least made me laugh. And some minutes much more than that. And its sincerity and lack of condescension make you feel as though you saw something when it was over, not just a string of gags and blackouts. I especially recommend this to my fellow teachers -- it is funny because it is very true. (Incidentally it is available on Netflix streaming until February when the Starz contract expires.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How did these herrings get so red?

Unknown (2011) is another Liam-Neeson-running-around-a-European-city potboiler, so there is little to say about it with regard to film aesthetics or history. Just a few observations, then.

This film and X Men: First Class present conclusive proof that January Jones can't act. She has a petulant childish presence that works for her role on Mad Men, but nothing else to offer as an actor. She doesn't even move well, as you might expect of a former model. Can we throw the towel in on her?

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made a similarly botched and derivative horror film, Orphan, has a bad habit of shooting and editing ordinary events into little bitsy shots evidently intended to ramp up the suspense when what is happening on the screen is not and should not be a subject of suspense. Case in point - a baddy slides down the fire ladder from the roof down to the ground. It is presented in three separate cuts as if there was some question as to whether he would reach the ground, or perhaps suggesting that a surprise awaited him at the bottom. But no. He hits the ground and runs away. In fact, once he had left the roof, there is no reason whatsoever for the film to stay with him.

The whole film is a festival of red herrings, which do not serve as clever misdirection, but merely annoying clutter and lack of focus. The film huffs and puffs for a long time about the recovery of a briefcase which doesn't affect the story in the least.

The story turns mostly on Liam Neeson not being who he says (and thinks) he is. It takes him a really long time. About a minute into a really good but violent and destructive car chase through Berlin, replete with fancy stunt driving, I figured out that Neeson was not really a botanist. He didn't find out for another 15 or 20 minutes.

There is one moment of really good production design -- a cat and mouse scene in an art gallery filled with life-size photo portraits. Hitchcock would have known how to use the contrast between the real people and the images of people and the idea that the characters are presenting false images of themselves. Collet-Serra fumbles it.

Also, a filmmaker should have more respect for Frank Langella. He shows up, has a too-short scene with Bruno Ganz, delivers some information, half of which we had guessed, and then dies. That's a waste. You could get Dylan Baker or somebody to do that.

One innovation. You know that cliche where someone is trying to defuse a bomb, racing against time as the readout counts backward? And you know how they always finally succeed at the last moment? They don't do that here. It's almost worth seeing the whole movie.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Side by side by 'Scope

Here it is September, and I'm still catching up with the last few Academy nominees for last year; specifically Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010), which was nominated for screenplay, which is ironic given Mr. Leigh's modus. Reportedly, he works with a group of actors around some characters and themes he is interested in. After a few months of improvisation, he goes away and writes a complete script based on that work. So in a way, Mr. Leigh partakes of a committee-type writing procedure, even within an Art tradition.

A few disjointed observations. The critical consensus was that this film was about class. Perhaps that is a British perspective, because I don't see a disparity in income as synonymous with membership in a different class. One can be part of the managerial-professional class without being particularly well-heeled. Class is substantially, if not primarily, a matter of self-identification. And the major characters in this film are all middle-class in outlook, even if some of them are skint. There are no laborers and no aristocrats to be found.

The film is not so much about the unequal distribution of money so much as it is about the unequal distribution of happiness and how people choose to deal with it. Some writers have found the central couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen to be smug and self-satisfied, whereas I think they are simply comfortable with themselves, a trait many people are not familiar with, and therefore find strange.

But to my mind, the film is structurally flawed at its heart, perhaps due to the quality of those afore-mentioned improvisations. It seems as though the film was meant to be an ensemble piece, not perhaps full-on Altmanesque, but a widely distributed set of storylines revolving around a theme, rather than the usual toolbox of suspense and melodrama. But Leslie Manville's Mary (seen in the clip) above and her desperation to belong and to be loved hijacks the film, sucking the energy out of every other corner of the film. This includes the sequence that should have been the highlight, wherein Broadbent goes to help his older brother bury the brother's wife, a procedure interrupted by a bitter, estranged son. But the incident feels isolated and without resonance, and Broadbent's brother becomes significant to the film only because of his brief awkward scene with Manville. Even Broadbent struggles to remain at the center of what was supposed to be his own vehicle.

I love Cinemascope ratio, described variously as 2.35, 2.39 and 2.40. Doesn't matter much. It seems to me to be made to show two or even three people sitting side by side. Academy ratio is for isolated stars, or perhaps two stars in tight embrace. But 'Scope lets you see the space between people (or the lack thereof) and seems to me to be far more useful in storytelling. Throughout this film, Mary wants to be close to people who don't want to be close to her, and vice versa and 'Scope is the perfect vehicle for this trope.

One odd thing about Leigh's technique -- given that it is actor-based, one would expect long, uninterrupted takes. But I was not aware of long takes or gaps between cuts. Everything proceeds along relatively conventional lines. And thankfully Leigh does not indulge in the usual practice of American character-based filmmakers -- the long static shot of a character doing nothing. I never know what to do during those. They seem embarrassing. Leigh keeps his comedy of embarrassment on screen, among the characters, rather than between the characters and the audience. It's all part of being British, I suppose.

Pictures that move the viewer

About 20 years ago, the Japanese network NHK co-produced a great documentary about the history of cinematography called Visions of Light, primarily to demonstrate the quality of the high-definition television system NHK was developing. (Ironically, this film is not available in a high-def format, at least not in the US.) That film did more to change me from a movie fan to an analytical viewer of film than any book or college course. It was a powerful wake-up as to how important the actual images that make up a film are to the impact of the film and the significance of the cinematographer in the history of not just film style, but narrative itself.

Another film that performs a similar function IS available in high definition (which is the way I saw it on Netflix) is Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010). As the photographer of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and African Queen, Cardiff is probably the first consistently great photographer in Technicolo(u)r. US studio technicians such as Leon Shamroy and Harold Rosson were very good, but they were primarily decorative. Cardiff's work is deeply expressive, and he became an indispensable collaborator with his directors (most famously Michael Powell).

I don't have a good clip to post for Cameraman with its marvelous mix of clips and interviews and especially Cardiff's incredible work as a painter. But here is an excerpt from Black Narcissus that demonstrates why his work with color as a storyteller has never been equaled to this day:

And if you want to see all of Black Narcissus or Camerman, they're both on Netflix streaming, so you could go there right now (as well as The Red Shoes and Cardiff's best film as a director, Sons and Lovers).

If they don't open your eyes as to what color CAN mean to film storytelling when it's not taken for granted, then you probably knew already.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pulling it together

Happythankyoumoreplease (2010) is an agreeable modest debut whose existence is surely owed solely to writer-director-star Josh Radnor's leading role in a television sitcom. Ordinarily a young filmmaker would have gotten such a rudimentary and ramshackle film out of his system in film school or in an ultra lowbudget shot-on-video festival debut on the way to truly gathering his or her powers and making a truly vigorous and authentic gesture as an artist. As is right and proper for the early work of a fledgling filmmaker, its mostly made of bits and pieces from other people's work with the exception the storyline around a woman afflicted with alopecia, richly limned by Malin Akerman and her love interest played by the always welcome Tony Hale.

Of the other main story threads, one is both implausible and vaguely distasteful and the other is quite dull, but there is one sequence to celebrate, borrowed though it is from Annie Hall (Woody Allen is clearly Radnor's model). It is the climactic scene in which all the threads are brought together and resolved, edited to footage of the female lead singing a song of redemption and joy in a nightclub. In Annie Hall it was Diane Keaton singing "Seems Like Old Times." In Happythankyoumoreplease it is the sweet Kate Mara singing a little-known and completely delightful song by John Kander and Fred Ebb called "Sing Happy." (It is from their debut musical, Flora The Red Menace in which art student Liza Minnelli found herself inadvertently mixed up with Depression-era Communists.) To my mind, this little film will have completely justified its existence if it does nothing more than bring "Sing Happy" into the consciousness of more singers, music directors and film goers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Steve Carell at the crossroads: Brand or actor?

Ten years ago, Steve Carell was an adroit actor/comedian emerging on The Daily Show, albeit without such a set persona as Rob Corddry or Steven Colbert. Then, with the double-whammy of The Office and 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Carell's name became a household word. But Carell still had the power to decide what that household word would mean.

Many, probably most, comedians become brands. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart -- we know what we are in for when we walk in. (Peter Sellers is perhaps the only brand known for its unpredictability; however, we should note that his superstardom is owed to the rather narrow character of Inspector Clouseau.] But recent performers have straddled the divide between brand and ac. Perhaps Bill Murray was the first; certainly Will Ferrell is working both sides of the street, especially since it appears that his brand (the overgrown adolescent) may not be sustainable as he ages. (This is what happened to Jerry Lewis.) Jim Carrey is attempting to negotiate the transition, but it has been rough for him.

Carell's brand, which is what he relied on in that bit of commercial fluff, Date Night, is a quiet, decent everyman who wanders across a range from narcissism to self-deprecation, but hovers over the reasonable center. If he's going to do something crazy, it's because he has been pushed to it, whereas a Jim Carrey-branded character starts at stark raving bonkers and amps it up from there. Crazy, Stupid, Love. cements that trend and rests a lot of its ambition on the skill and warmth of Carell's acting, as seen here, partnered with the impeccable Julianne Moore.

This is worlds away from the disconnected and perhaps insane weatherman Carell played in Anchorman, one of the films that helped build his reputation. But more surprising, having made the step up to feature film leading man, is that the crazy, spontaneous improv comic is still lurking around, albeit literally disguised.

Ordinarily when animators hire famous actors to voice characters, they are trading on the recognizability of the voice being engaged. (Before the modern era, voice experts rendered their own versions of voice types. Paul Frees or Daws Butler had their own version of Ed Wynn, Charles Butterworth, Lou Costello or even Phil Silvers. June Foray has a devastating Marjorie Main. Sometime in the 1980s, it became evident that real movie stars, many of whom grew up on animation, were willing to become, nay enthusiastic to serve as animation voice talent. Imitators were no longer necessary, except for dead personalities, e.g. Maurice LaMarche's great gloss on Orson Welles.) So when Despicable Me (2010) was announced to star Steve Carell, it was not to be expected what a transformative performance he would give.

One good sign -- the character designs bore no resemblance to the actors providing their voices, clearly signaling the animators' disinclination to trade on the actors' celebrity personas, including those of Russell Brand, Jason Segal, and most especially Julia Andrews, none of whom are cast in ways they would be in a live-action film.

It is rather heartening to hear Mr. Carell hold onto his inner Peter Sellers. There are comics around who still trade on their versatility -- Hank Azaria and Christopher Guest come to mind. But such performers are rarely stars. So here's hoping that while Steve Carell solidifies his brand, he hangs on to the versatility and range which were so important on the way up.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Who let the monsters in?

Back when I wrote about Let The Right One In, the Swedish vampire movie, I noted that it had an American remake, called Let Me In (2010). The good news is that the story has not been Spielbergified or otherwise translated into standard Hollywood tropes. The director found a cold and isolated analogue to the claustrophobic Nordic winter of the original. A few things are done better, a few done not so well. My favorite scares seemed to be not quite as good, due to changes in camera placement and cutting, but it may be that since I knew they were coming, I was inured to their shock value. (Specifically, they are the hospital facade scene and the final encounter in the pool.)

The film makes good use of CGI, especially in one sequence in which the protagonist retaliates on some bullies. In the past, such a sequence would have to use misdirection, clever staging and tricky editing to cover up the necessity of not actually injuring one's actors. Now CGI permits such a scene of personal violence to be handled in a straightforward fashion.

On the other hand, director Matt Reeves, the near-genius responsible for Cloverfield demonstrates a Spielbergian flair for a bravura sequence of everyday terror, namely a car crash, using a spectacular mix of real footage, green screen, CGI and composites thereof. Here it is:

And here's a "making of" sequence that explains how it was done:

The best news is that both films are currently available on Netflix Streaming, so you can do a side-by-side comparison. There are many worse ways to spend an evening.

My biggest misgiving about the remake is the title, which, coupled with the poster art, suggests words spoken by a potential victim, rather than the words of the vampire, who, according to standard lore, must be invited into a room.

But that somewhat misleading title puts me in mind of the only entirely worthwhile sequence in the lesser Val Lewton film, The Leopard Man (1943). The film shoots itself in the foot, horror-wise when it introduces the title leopard in the first sequence in such a way as to be no scarier than "Baby" in Bringing Up Baby. Then it meanders around with a dull detective plot for a long time.

The sterling exception is this sequence in which a young girl is sent out on a simple errand by her mother. It has been set up that she is rather fanciful and her mother rather impatient. This Youtube poster has put a number of shots together which in the film are distributed over a longer sequence, but it is useful to see this thread isolated from the other parts of the film. The climax in this clip, consisting of offscreen action, ranks among the top five fright sequences in the history of film, at least to me. As usual, the unseen horror is worse than anything that a filmmaker can picture. If you are seriously interested in film, you owe it to yourself to watch this:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Keaton's first masterwork

James Emerson has written this lovely tribute to and analysis of Buster Keaton's first true feature, Our Hospitality (1923). I really can't say any of it better than Mr. Emerson did, so I urge you to click this link. Reading his piece is going to make you really want to see the film (again, if applicable). Luckily, you can do that right here:*

* It's 73 minutes, so while it is completely safe for work, I wouldn't recommend you watch it there unless your employer has very lax standards. Or your job is to watch great films.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Did they know?

Sat down the other day to watch Robert Aldrich's cavalry vs. Indians Western Ulzana's Raid (1972), figuring it to be a decent potboiler Western from the last period during which American studios were turning out such films. By the end of the decade, the workaday Western was gone, and when Westerns appeared thereafter as in Silverado and Dances With Wolves they were super-special event movies. I missed a lot of westerns from the 1970's from having been overdosed on them in the 60's, so I missed how they had changed.

In a way, it was the way all American films had changed: the loss of innocence, the note of despair and loss. But the Western has a special talent for metaphor, usually carried in a more elegant form than, say a science fiction, which generally brings its politics out front and center. So it is perfectly possible to see Ulzana as just another example of trying-to-outwit-the-wily-Red-Man and nothing more. Perhaps the racism was less virulent, but still woven into the fabric. Being a 1970's film the violence is a little more realistic -- sudden, bloody and yielding consequences more real and painful than a 1930s cowboy clutching his bloodless chest and falling gracefully into the dust.

Today, Ulzana clearly is a Vietnam film. The enemy is largely unseen and they and their cultural context are, to the cavalry, completely unknowable. Their tactics are terroristic in nature. Their goal is to be simply left alone. The cavalry view the Apache as if they were not human, and least not humans like them. Cavalry officers ignore good intelligence (provided by Burt Lancaster as an old scout) in favor of their own narrative frame. Misdirection, missed opportunities and failure in execution leads to military failure by the cavalry. But in a way it doesn't matter, because a victory now would only be temporary, and either this Apache or another would arise to harass the US Army.

The only honorable allegiance is to truth and to other honorable people. Adherence to one side or another seems feckless. This is not warm, but a cosmic game of Chicken, winner is the last one to withdraw.

So the question is...did they know they were making a Vietnam film at the time? Or was this just something in the zeitgeist? Or am I reading something into it that's just not there? I was around in 1972, and Vietnam was, as a I recall, Topic A. So when is a Western just a Western?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Whither tentacle monsters

Can I just ask, "Why tentacles?" Of all the scary appendages that things from outer space might have -- lobster claws, corkscrews or perhaps vicious, poison-tipped umbrellas. But no, somehow a consensus has formed around tentacles as the giant alien's limb of choice and I guess we're stuck with it.

Two relatively low-profile films released in 2010 illustrate disparate approaches to making tentacle monster movies. (This is limited to mainstream films; there is a whole shadowy world of tentacle monsters, originating in Japan that I have no intention of getting into.) One follows a classical Hollywood horror-movie template. Second- and third-tier actors placed in a limited number of settings with a simple melodramatic frame shaped like a funnel, so that a small group of characters becomes an even smaller group, usually with only the romantic couple remaining.

Skyline (2010) was directed by a special-effects supervisor and it looks it. In fact, only the CGI portions demonstrate any real passion from any of the participants. In the actors' defense, it can't be easy to spend 18 or 20 days on a confined stage (representing the terrace apartment which is the only location of the film) swathed in green fabric, pretending to be terrorized by what the director tells you is going to be there. I can't imagine how one could sustain interest in such a task unless the paycheck was hefty, and this paycheck couldn't have been. Here's a typical excerpt:

This is best Skyline has to offer. There are no characters, no situations, no paradox, metaphor or allegory to contemplate. Just a lot of animation and (SLAM!) cues from the soundtrack. The characters' only choices are whether to run toward or away from the danger. Roger Corman must have been beaming with recognition.

Another approach is the ultra-low budget Monsters (2010). [Couldn't anyone have been talked out of releasing a low-budget film with such a generic title? It sounds like a Wayans Brothers project that couldn't even muster the energy to come up with a silly name.] Again, writer-director Gareth Edwards is a special-effects specialist. Evidently (and this is a mixture of published statements and surmise), principal photography with the actors cost about $15,000, as they wandered around one side or the other of the Mexican border pretending to elude some scary tentacle monsters which had been sort of hanging around for months (shades of District 9, of which the makers of Monsters say they were unaware at the time of shooting). Then the film spent a year or so in post-production, to the tune of about $500,000 during which Mr. Edwards made the monsters on his home computer. I could have some of that wrong, but that's the general outline.

Problem is, the thin and semi-improvised story involving the two principals is alternately unengaging and borrowed goods, a sort-of It Happened One Night with space aliens. Despite their skill and professionalism, their lack of charm or charisma sends the movie toward Cassavetes-sweaty-actor-laboriously-improvising-Land, which is a strangle place for a monster movie to dwell. Mr. Edwards would have been well advised to engage an actual writer and/or genuinely skilled improvisers to create an absorbing foreground for the big tentacle creatures.

Monsters does have a much-remarked-upon subtext about immigration which the creators claim was unintended (and I believe them). The monsters only make fleeting appearances in the film, and that's not just a problem because there aren't enough scare or shock sequences. (There aren't any after the beginning of the film. Thereafter, the monsters become languid to the point of being downright sluggish.) It's that the filler has no intrinsic interest.

Cloverfield had ample thrills and chills well distributed through its approximately 75 minutes. District 9 had many interesting story threads and themes about the use of security, terrorism, racism, genetic experimentation and what-have-you. It could have retained interest even if it had half the CGI material that it does. (And District 9's CGI was extraordinarily convincing.) But Monsters doesn't appear to have an idea other than to mark time until another pedestrian animation sequence.

Incidentally, the question came up in connection with Avatar and it's becoming more and more pertinent as the Transformers aesthetic permeates down to lowbudget filmmaking like these films represent. Namely -- what is the difference -aesthetically- between a digital effects driven film and an out-and-out animated film. When the effects are not a supporting element but the raison d'etre for the entire undertaking, with the actors and the script in (feeble) support, aren't we just watching Saturday morning cartoons with some cheesy actors pasted in to stretch the budget?

My rhetoric here is probably harsher than the way I feel about these films. Monsters was at least trying something novel. Skyline was simply a potboiler, and you will probably see its clones on the Syfy Channel before long, if they're not already there. But the good news is that if you have Netflix streaming, you can check my opinion against your own, as both these films are available there at the moment.

And next time you order calamari -- watch out!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Stiff upper lip

The Internet hardly needs any more comment about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011), so I will try to keep this short.

The first word that comes to mind to describe this final film episode is discipline. The film is disciplined in length, in the use of effects, in the portrayal of sentiment and in its reinforcement of the importance of duty and self-sacrifice. Perhaps only the English could make such a restrained epic, for despite all the American money, the Potter films have remained fairly resolutely English (Chris Columbus and John Williams notwithstanding).

Compared to Return of the King's 257 endless endings, the Potter series ends on a quiet, austere note, a mere reassurance that life continues -- no guarantees, just continuation. The grand battles last as long as they need to make the essential points clear, resisting the Michael Bay-induced tendency for these sequences to go clunking on and on, with more and more bright flashes and loud noises from the soundtrack. Which reminds me -- Alexandre Desplat is emerging as one of the most thoughtful, character-sensitive, story-savvy composers working today. A look at his filmography will clarify what I mean. ("Emerging" after a mere 25 years!)

Everyone has remarked at how many distinguished British actors have appeared in the series. How do the excluded ones feel? Is Ian McKellen moping around with Daniel Day-Lewis, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren because they never got a shot on the Hogwarts faculty? Is it hard not to be one of the Cool Kids? (Or is it cooler NOT to have been in the series?) Interestingly, the filmmakers deflected an opportunity for stunt star casting in the role of Dumbledore's brother Abeforth. Ciaran Hinds is a fine actor, downright brilliant in The Eclipse, but hardly a publicity or ticket-sales magnet.

Is Daniel Radcliffe's improved performance in this installment attributable to greater maturity, the accumulation of skills or his well-publicized abstention from alcohol? Or some combination thereof?

Finally, I'm a schoolteacher, so I can't leave the subject without summarizing the educational impact of the Harry Potter series, books and films. To me, the stories are built on a wonderful metaphor of the process of maturing, of leaving family and familiar places, developing one's powers and venturing into the world. Harry is almost a perfect Joseph Campbell hero, which could make him a valuable gateway to meeting Odysseus and our other long-established heroes. But it was all summed up in a lovely open letter to J.K. Rowling which can be read in its entirety here. Here is the passage that I found most striking:
You are...responsible for turning a whole generation of kids into avid readers, and you used your books to teach important lessons. Your readers learned about things like how much harder it can be to stand up to your friends than standing up to an enemy. There were civics lessons about the important role free press plays in a society, particularly how it lets the public know about the actions of their government. You have showed us that it's important to fight for the disenfranchised, even if no one understands why you're fighting. You showed us what can happen when nearly absolute power is put into the wrong hands. Most importantly, you've taught us that it's up to each of us individually to make the choice between doing what is right and doing what is easy — and it is that choice that really determines who we are.
Bye Harry and company. Maybe I'll meet you again in the company of my grandchildren. Rob, Sam -- no pressure!

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Water for Elephants (2011) and The Way Back (2010) are not only about earlier historical eras, they seem to have been made at some earlier time and sent through a wormhole to our time. What is it about these films, other than the obvious physical trappings that make them seem like cinematic throwbacks?

Theorist David Bordwell has posited that the entire manner of storytelling on film has entirely altered in the last 30 years or so, in a syndrome he calls "intensified continuity." We have seen so many stories, have absorbed so many images that we can and do take in visual narrative in a more rapid and complex way than previous generations. But classical continuity still has its attractions, and not only can we still enjoy old films, we can enjoy new films made in the old way. What is that way?

1. Straightforward chronology - Something happens, and then something else happens because of that, and that leads to the next thing and so on and so on. This stems from a deep cultural bias toward the concept of cause and effect in life, that choices have consequences, that life moves toward purposes and ends. Post-modernism looks at life as random, irrational, even accidental. Garp's plane crashes into a house the very moment he is considering buying it. No foreshadowing, no "planting" of that plane -- just - wham! - plane! - hole in house! Nothing like that ever happens in a Spencer Tracy movie.

Yes, classic films have flashbacks, even flashbacks within flashbacks. But they are always announced and punctuated with rippling dissolves or some other device. The actual chronology is never disturbed and never unclear. We have no such certainty in the cinema today.

Water for Elephants starts at A, goes to B, then on to C. There are a few moments when so information between scenes is omitted briefly, but that is so it can be revealed strategically a few moments later. We're never in doubt that is 1931 and that a cause will be followed by an effect.

The Way Back is even simpler, because once the preliminaries (which take too long) are out of the way, we are in a road movie, going from Point A to Point B. (Russia to India in 1945, to be specific.) The film is picaresque, so the events do not necessarily have the strong causal links of a three-act story, but there is no question that chronology is proceeding in a straight line.

2. Long shots and long takes - Both films eschew the modern "cutty" style of editing which is intended to immerse the viewer in the "sense" of the event, but actually just distances and alienates the audience because the information cannot be decoded or placed into a narrative frame. Both films use fairly conventional styles, prefer to frame two or three characters together at a minimum (to emphasize their relationships), and a relative minimum of camera movement, used only to set scenes, follow characters or show the relationship between things, as opposed to the camera movement which is used to show that the producer let you have a Louma crane and a Steadicam operator.

3. Theatrical acting - Christoph Waltz and Ed Harris, the respective "leaders" of each film operate in a text-based style, using voice and full body gesture to execute their ideas. Christoph Waltz is explicitly theatrical, with a grand and rolling style of voice and hyperbolic physical expression. But if Marlon Brando developed his technique in the theater (and he did), then Ed Harris's performance, in classical American realistic style, pared down in the manner of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood to a burnished simplicity, is theatrical. It is, at the very least, simple in an epic way which indicates great forethought and craft, a world away from Mumblecore.

4. Relaxed and minimal use of effects - Digital effects come in two broad categories today -- those which are showpieces in and of themselves, as in the Transformers series, in which the principal actors are machines which have themselves been created by machines; and films which are only possible because of "seamless" effects, such as historical backgrounds, vast panoramas and location and automobile shots which are made practicable and efficient by use of the digital domain. Both of the films under discussion fall under the latter category. Water for Elephants creates a fairly convincing 1931 world, and is able to offer some long shots of that vanished universe that would be otherwise impossible. I'm not positive when and where effects were used in The Way Back, but I suspect they were used to simplify and burnish the image, which for a good deal of the running time consists of a burned-out landscape. In any case, whatever was done is fairly invisible to the average audience, which is the Classical approach to using any new expressive tool.

Plus Water for Elephants has wonderful scenes of people walking around and sitting on moving train cars. Don't you love people walking around on top of moving trains? Isn't that just the essence of a certain type of Classical-era movie? Maybe it's not elemental, but it's sure evocative.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If it ain't on the page

Tom Hanks is attempting a cinema experiment with Larry Crowne (2011), that is, to do without the basic elements of drama as promulgated by such luminaries as Aristotle and Robert McKee. Three act structure, goodbye. Conflict and obstacles, farewell. Tension and resolution begone. Let's put a man through some of the most difficult transitions in life, have him discard most of his assumptions about himself and the world and because he is So Darn Nice, he will just float through the whole thing. And there will be a beautiful daughter-like young woman to offer him affection and unconditional support without any romantic overtones or complications, so that he is free to have a grown-up romance with a movie star who has "troubles" which are dispensed with in a manner of minutes.

In fact, everyone's troubles are dismissed with an airy brush of the hand. Larry can't even pay his bills, but somehow he has tuition money. (It's been pointed out to me that as a veteran, he might have access to tuition money, but the movie which deals with so many other financial details never addresses the question.)

Not only is the whole thing ridiculous dramatically, it is an insult to the very audience it is aimed at, the American public struggling through the changes imposed on it by the current recession brought on through no fault of their own. Not a political diatribe, that would be of no value in this context. But something that addressed the very genuine difficulty and rewards of change, especially when they come in the middle of your life. There are real, hard and ultimately gratifying things to be said if the filmmakers had had the courage, tenacity and skill to address the very real issues of this kind of change. But instead, things are pasted together with a slapdash romance with Julia Roberts, who is the kind of actor who invites writers not to bother writing a character, because she will seem to create one anyway, and who also is capable of throwing a film entirely off-balance, especially when she appears in what should be a small supporting role, but which she -- intentionally or not -- converts into a co-starring role, though she has little if any story function.

Simply put, niceness may be an adequate way to pass time, but it is no way to create an actual aesthetic object. Similarly, Nice Guy Johnny (2010) announces its slender and hackneyed story and its central production problem in the title. The news handle for this film is that experienced filmmaker Ed Burns made it for $25,000. That is the sole matter of interest about this movie. It looks and feels exactly like a movie made for $25,000, especially in the acting department. But it also looks one of those post-apocalyptic movies in which both lower Manhattan and the popular Hamptons have become completely uninhabited. It is one thing for the lovers to feel as if they are the only people in the world; it is another thing for them to be the only people because the film can't afford background players.

Don't they know that we know that if the main character is engaged at the beginning of the movie, they will never never never marry that person? Really, was that relationship supposed to be of interest to us?

Literally the only defensible circumstances under which to watch this film is if one is an aspiring filmmaker, to listen to the DVD commentary track and pick up some tricks and tips about low-budget filmmaking. Getting it made seems to have sucked up all of Mr. Burns' attention and, like Mr. Hanks, he seems to have disregarded the need for original characters, conflicts, surprise, tension or really any element of storytelling. But it is a pretty cool commentary if you're interested in such things.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Reticent Camera

One of the pleasures to be found in Sofia Coppola's return to form, Somewhere (2010), might be called the resonances of the reticent camera. In bold contrast to the film-school boys, whose cameras track and swoop and fly all around the place, including through many places that don't exist, Coppola's camera seems to be not just nailed, but lag-bolted into the floor.

The great classical filmmakers, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, all favored a camera mounted on a tripod and set at roughly eye-level. Wilder openly disdained shots "through the fireplace." Hawks specifically sought to make the audience forget that the camera existed. And Ford always knew there was exactly one place to put the camera, creating an often painterly or theatrical composition. The New Wave and its American followers took the camera off the tripod and, to begin with, began running around with it, trying to catch the action as it walked, jogged and sometimes streaked past. People complained about the jittery, sometimes nauseating effect of handheld camera work, so we got the Steadicam and the Skycam and the Louma crane and more and more cheaper and faster ways to move cameras smoothly and effectively, often in the service of telling the story. There is no serious argument that the Steadicam shots in The West Wing convey the dynamism and perpetual workload of leadership of a major world power. It's not a frill -- it's part of the ethos.

The other side of the coin is that these toys are fun to play with. I've been on the set and I know. And I also know how setting them and lighting for them is an incredible time eater, often to produce effects that do not enhance story, setting or any other elements of the film that the audience cares about. So I welcome Sofia Coppola's static camera. Which is not there just for indolence, but to suggest an objectivity, a literal distance from the characters that is instructive, clear, ironic and sometimes downright funny. When you have a static frame, people and things can move in and out of it, instead of being the subject of the camera's relentless pursuit. Instead the camera lays back and says, in effect, "I'll wait for her. She's going to come back." And then she comes back, satisfying the expectation that's been set up and the audience and the camera are co-conspirators, knowing a little bit more about this person than she knows about herself.

So the opening of Somewhere gives us a sports car literally going nowhere, moving in and out of frame because it simply doesn't matter. Why follow the path of a car that has no destination, that will end where it starts? Why not just wait at the starting point and let it come back to you? We have not met the driver, who we will discover is the protagonist, but we already know he is literally aimless.

There is much criticism (mostly by young viewers) that nothing happens in Somewhere. This will be the case if you are the kind of person who has difficulty "reading" other people, their thoughts, moods and feelings, especially by looking at their faces. If you need "stuff" to happen, dramatic revelations, snappy dialogue, Somewhere is going to disappoint you. But if you are sensitive to the movements of the heart, you will recognize the signs of deepening levels of love and trust between father and daughter, especially since the daughter is played by Elle Fanning, who rates as MVP for young actresses in 2010-11.

Rabbit Hole (2010) also employs a somewhat reticent camera, not so much because it is waiting patiently, as in Somewhere, but because the foreground is packed with emotional action. Rabbit Hole demonstrates that the true provenance for the digital RED camera may be the actor-based film which rests on the interplay among faces, an interplay best captured within a single take. With the RED cameras, an operator can be put on each actor, and even another on a master shot. There is no "stock", so the cost of continuing to roll is marginal. Some directors don't even slate between takes, they just ask the actors to do it again without a pause. The result can be a single performance shared among several cameras, with the actors each reacting to exactly the performance you are seeing (as contrasted with having to react to an actor or even a tech sitting off-camera feeding the lines), and perfect, seamless cuts among them.

Digital cameras still do not have the range of high and low light that fine 35mm cameras have, but they are coming close. And they do not have to yield the grainy look they did ten years ago. Look at this warmly lit scene as husband Aaron Eckhart tries to soften the mood between himself and wife Nicole Kidman, both in mourning for a child lost in a random accident eight months earlier:

Note that, as casual and intimate as the scene is, the cameras are still on sticks, the relative sizes and juxtapositions of the characters perfectly conventional. No dollies, no odd angles, no jittery handheld work here, because the director has put the load on the actors and their words.

To this end, Nicole Kidman appears to be a perfect film actor, better to me than a Meryl Streep, who is always putting on a persona, which I can see her taking off at the end of the day. That is not to say that Kidman is a personality actor like Cary Grant, but a character actor without the eyepatch and the limp, like an Ingrid Bergman, who just shows up on screen as the character and nothing else. She is beautiful, but her beauty doesn't feel like a presentation, but simply a trait, like a cowlick or a birthmark (which perhaps it is). Interestingly, as one looks at this clip, Kidman's expressiveness is not centered around the small movements of the eye as is typical on film, but in body posture, tilt of the head, eyebrows, perhaps some widening of the eyelid, all tools of the stage actor.

Here is another example of digital's ability to capture the interplay of two (or more) simultaneous performances. The actors overlap and react easily and naturally. It also represents the film's wit as mother and daughter share the lighter side of losing a child:

The setups are conventional and locked down, leaving ample foreground space for the acting. Stage director John Cameron Mitchell cannily uses the old trick of keeping the actors' hands busy to deflect their attention and the audience's.

This scene does bring out a point I want to share with you. If you have heard of this film or the play, but haven't seen it, you probably think, like I did, that you are going to be pull down into a spiral of grief and conflict. I promise you this -- it won't. And if you go with it all the way to the end--and I can't imagine why you wouldn't--you will feel lightened, relieved, uplifted, especially if you are going through any kind of trial. I don't know a film that does the "life will go on and even get better" think better than this, and the reason points up an interesting contrast between stage and film.

(Incidentally, this film is a model of stage-to-screen adaptation, especially one done by the playwright. Offstage scenes are brought on stage, long static scenes are broken up into chunks, different characters move the scenes from different places, visual analogs for verbal ideas are often engaged, and a couple of brand new ideas introduced, most memorably the scene in which the husband botches the sale of the house by sharing too much. The economy and precision of what should have be been talky and indulgent is admirable.)

Both versions end with the same speech by the husband, but for a small cut which seemed redundant. (This frequently happens in the transition between stage and film -- it's possible to cut back the words both because a facial expression can substitute for the words and because we are sitting closer to the actors and we hear what they say better, which means they don't have to nail the point home the way they may need to on stage.) The husband makes a prediction of what they will do, the little gathering they will have for family and friends. The point of the speech is the ordinariness of the events he is forecasting. But on film, we can see it, we can see the warmth of the smiles and embraces, the children playing, the calico tablecloth, the food prepared and the food consumed. The beauty of plain ordinary life is there for us to see and we weep in recognition of how good those simple joys are if we will just think about what it might be like to become numb to them, as these parents did.

And the scene ends just as it did on stage, with the couple facing out and holding hands ready for the future, but now, on film, we see the yard and the tablecloth and the remains of the party. On stage, we projected our hope on them. On film, hope is made manifest.