Saturday, April 30, 2011

Words words words

The late Woody Allen, the one who wrote and directed Take the Money and Run, Annie Hall and Bullets over Broadway once had as fine an ear for idiomatic American comic dialogue as any of this contemporaries from Sid Caesar University such as Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, etc., etc. Sadly, this enjoyable filmmaker died and someone calling himself Woody Allen is making all-star tax-shelter movies in Europe without scripts, style or indeed any idea for a movie.

Last year this imposter turned out something called You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010) which ostensibly poses the question: Can you predict the future? The answer is no. Any questions?

There is the usual Allen mix of scads of miscast stars (Antonio Banderas plays someone named Greg. Can you imagine Antonio being Greg? Or indeed any Spanish man named Greg?) an old man justifying his romance with an inappropriately younger woman, a failed artist or two, some pointless adulteries, a half-baked criminal act, the fear of discovery of which will drive much of the film, and as has been the case for the last 10 years, a foreign location to make his international investors happy, and because Manhattan is kind of sick of him tying up the streets for his snooze fests.

But his films are not bad for all the usual reasons that films are bad, such as there was no reason to make them or the filmmaker is inept. Neither is true here. Woody Allen has simply stopped writing scripts. He writes down ideas for scripts, with detailed notes of what the lines should be, but seems to have forgotten to write actual dialogue that could be spoken by actors who are trying to create the illusion of a character.

Starting about 10 years ago (that was the year of Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Allen's uncontested rock-bottom worst movie), instead of writing lines, his characters speak their unconscious intentions, what actors and directors call the subtext of a scene. "I have decided to leave you because you remind me of my lost youth and the impossibility of retrieving my lost youth." "Well, then, I have become an alcoholic due to your emotional abuse and neglect, and am sinking ever further into a morass of self-pity." "Don't blame your terrible decline on me; I am in search of that moving principle that once guided my entire existence." "I'll blame what I like you, because I am the embittered representative of a generation who was lost and lied to."

Mind you, this is not actual dialogue from an Allen film. There's no way I could remember such dreck, and nobody quotes this crap on line. You can't find a Woody Allen quote online any more recent than 1995, the year of Mighty Aphrodite, his last really good movie. But New York feels obligated to support Allen year after year, like making a contribution to the Planetarium. You don't go anymore, but you'd hate to see it gone.

It's not unusual for comedy writers to lose their touch, especially with dialogue. It happened to Billy Wilder and to Blake Edwards. My hypothesis is that once they become Hollywood celebrities, they don't encounter actual humans talking anymore. As William Goldman wrote, "In time they write plays about their agents." And in Woody Allen's case, he profoundly hates being around other human beings, which many might consider a disqualification for writing about them. It's not that he'll be mobbed as a celebrity -- if the portrait of him in Wild Man Blues is to be trusted*, this guy would rather lock himself in a closet with a TV so he can watch the Knicks than do anything, including write and direct movies.

And it shows. And believe, anyone who can still devote any brain cells to following the Knicks... he's done.

(Yes, I know he has a hit in the theaters currently, something about imagining he's in Paris with Hemingway. But from what I hear, it's as stilted as ever--he's just come up with a story that justifies the stiltedness.)
* And why should it be? Allen seems to have agreed to participate in it just to reassure everyone that it's OK to marry your stepdaughter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crazy love, but not crazy enough

A couple of unrelated observations about crazy people in love.

It's Kind Of A Funny Story (2010) seems to be the official demarcation of Zach Galifianakis as a film object. It is not necessary to have a well-written role for him, or something that interesting or unique for him to do. (The height of eccentricity in this movie consists of patients wearing doctor's scrubs - Wow, is that Zany!) No, you simply hire Galifianakis to certify that your film is quirky and offbeat whether or not it actually is. It's a sad degradation of an artist who is dangerously close to leasing out what is valuable about himself to entities who don't appreciate it. Robert Benchley, one of the finest writers of light humor was an alcoholic who couldn't deal with his belief that he had drunk his talent away and spent the last 7 or 8 years of his too-short life appearing in Hollywood movies not worthy of his talent.

Where he is usually a strange and primordial presence in most films, here he gets heartfelt and sincere advice and has a balanced perspective on himself on his illness, confusing ZG with any old actor out of the casting files. I have to assume the man has tax problems.

What's worse, whether he means to or not, the mere presence of Galifianakis pulls the entire film off-balance and away from the sweet if flimsy teen romance that is meant to be the center of gravity. It's as if you cast Robert DeNiro is the kindly man next door. Not only is it a waste of resources, but everybody will be waiting for the moment when that guy next door goes OFF!

The real problem with this movie about crazy people is that it's not crazy. It does, however, have one of the best-ever uses of the "object of reconciliation." This is a hoary old storytelling device, though it usually works very well. There are lots of ways to get there, but in essence you need (a) a rift between two characters; and (b) an object loaded with significance for one of the characters, but not for the other. It is best if the object is obscure and difficult to obtain so that the character for whom the object has no meaning must go through many trials in order to obtain this talismanic thing and then present to the other at the most emotionally critical point. In IKOAFS, the object is Egyptian music which, upon being played during a party on the ward lures the hero's reclusive and depressed roommate from his room. I don't think I ever saw music used as the object and worked like a charm. Unless maybe it was a song from childhood. Rats, it's not unique as I thought. Still worked.

Elling (2001) on the other hand, does involve actually crazy people, much to its merit. It was the number one film ever produced in Norway, which is why me and all my friends rushed out to see it. (Not really.) Also, it won an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

I sought out this film because it is based on a novel which was also the basis of a spectacular Broadway flop in the 2009-10 season. (To be fair, the play was a hit in London, but in a different production). It tells the story of two men completely unequipped to adjust to life on their own being forced to adjust to life on their own. One seems to be somewhere between autistic and OCD and the other is just a plain old-fashioned foole.

And if Elling had been produced in the 1920s or 1930s, they would have just been a pair of fools. But today we give such characters a medical diagnosis and put them in realistic situations and realistically limited options for solving them. This has its rewards in grounding comedy in the plausible and the natural, but it has its drawbacks in closing off the realm of the fantastical, which was available to the great fools such as Laurel & Hardy, Jerry Lewis and Ed Wynn.

But this is not an American film, it is a Northern European film, a world of limited resources and constricted dreams, compared to the mythos of the great American landscape and dreams of freedom, success and escape which lives in every American psyche. So their adventures -- going on a car trip, having a relationship with a woman, maintaining an apartment -- are plausible and relatable, and the film is likable. But this viewer would have liked an over-the-moon adventure (as in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), a little romance, a little poetry.

The diagnosis for both films -- terminal niceness. Could use a dash of real madness.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Art is abstraction, and each medium has its own set of conventions by which it conducts that abstraction. Some are obvious. Poetry organizes speech into more or less formal patterns, and paradoxically, the most formal patterns are the most popular, i.e., we love verse in regular meter and verse, even if it makes little or no sense, as in the verse of Edward Lear or Dr. Seuss. Whereas many listeners have trouble identifying or appreciating language that more closely approximates natural speech, be it free verse or even very skillful blank verse. (It is my experience that most people cannot readily differentiate verse from prose in Shakespeare without the text in front of them.) Representational painting abstracts the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional object, and abstract painting takes it a step further. Novels and stories organize experience into (more or less) coherent narratives, often with an omniscient narrator. Theater condenses that experience into limited time and space. And music is pure abstraction, simply organizing regular vibrations in forms we recognize as consonant and dissonant, and which over time seem to represent a departure and return.

Students have a hard time recognizing film as packed with convention, especially since Classical film emphasizes concealing convention in the interest of engaging the audience in the narrative. Most people cannot "see" editing, even though it is extremely artificial. No one listens to a conversation by jumping back and forth, standing behind the shoulders of the speakers. It is impossible to see a person leaving a room, and, in a split second, see them entering the adjacent room. But as long as we cut on action, the cuts are "invisible." [I have an exercise by which I have students clap their hands on each cut. Try it in an ordinary over-the-shoulder dialogue sequence and you will be surprised--most of the time--at how frequently the cuts come.] Even the "mockumentary" form preserves most of the rules of classical editing in order to avoid extreme audience discomfort or disorientation.

These issues are brought front and center when film takes its material from another medium. In an adaptation from a novel, the screenwriter must decide how to preserve the authorial voice. (And in very stylish writers, this can be a serious problem.) One must also decide whether to carry over the book's point of view; typically, the film version of a novel with a consistent but passive narrator, a Nick Carraway, will simply take a standard omniscient point of view, and make Nick a pallid character in his own story. In Olden Times, producers of film versions of plays talked about "opening up the play," that is, varying the physical locations so as to provide variety and de-emphasize the stage origins. But as Hitchcock demonstrated on a number of occasions (most notably Rope and Dial M for Murder), often the art of the play was in the way it compressed events into a single time and place, and that compression provided the tension and suspense central to the piece. It would make no sense, for instance to "open up" a play about a hostage situation. (Apropos of absolutely nothing, I DARE somebody, absolutely DARE them to turn Dog Day Afternoon into a musical. It just might work.)

For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf was described by its author, Ntozake Shange, as a "choreopoem," developed in a series of dance workshops; the artistic conventions heaped on top of each other in big slabs. At its center, however, is a cycle of twenty poems, most of which are narrative and reflective; combined, they form a mosaic of a community in the playgoer's mind. Here is one of the best pieces, from a straightforward adaptation of the play for public television:

(The woman in Orange is Alfre Woodard.) The piece works on a central metaphor -- one's sense of self as a collection of things, "stuff" one has accumulated over a lifetime. The act of proclaiming the words, especially before an onscreen or onstage audience, makes the equation of "stuff" with self clear and manifest; thus the mere act of performance lends concreteness to the poetry. Already there is a fusion and mutual support between expressive media.

But we are only looking at the piece at the micro level. For Colored Girls "becomes" a play by virtue of its accumulation of apparently unrelated narratives. The through-line is thematic rather than narrative, more like a song cycle than a musical.

Tyler Perry's adaptation, For Colored Girls (2010) as a theatrical film intended for a general audience chooses to frame the poems in an over-arching narrative. (Whether this is because of the inherent quality of film itself or audience expectation, I leave to wiser analytic minds than my own.) Thus, the film takes on the quality of a musical, with the 14 remaining poems treated as musical numbers. As in a musical, the "trick" is to ease the transition from Perry's inelegant everyday speech to Shange's heightened language. (The very difficulty of that transition is why so many inferior composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn try to erase the problem by filling their plays with music from beginning to end, flattening the entire experience into an undifferentiated musical stew.) This requires a general audience to accept poetry, poetry not fitted to the precise situation on screen, and poetry riddled with metaphor in the context of a real story in a real apartment in a real city. Interestingly, in scanning the critical reaction to the film, those transitions to not seem to have been real obstacles for most viewers; certainly there was not the level of complaint one usually sees about musicals ("Where's the orchestra?" ask the aesthetically illiterate. "Same place they are when you're watching Star Wars or Die Hard," I say.)

There is criticism about the storyline itself, the setting, one or two performances or the flatness of Perry's language, but few have balked at the movement from prose to poetry, and I would argue that that is an accomplishment for which Mr. Perry has received insufficient recognition. Hats off for his courage, commercially and aesthetically and the success met in the taking of this artistic risk. Unfortunately, there are few posted clips demonstrating this transition. I would particularly call your attention to a scene in which Phylicia Rashad as Gilda tends to her injured daughter, Tangie (Thandie Newton in some very surprising work) and makes Shange sound like Shakespeare, which makes sense, as Ms. Rashad has substantial Shakespeare experience.

Here's the best I can do, the second poem in the film (the first is expertly woven into the credit sequence) rendered by Loretta Devine. The poem begins with the words, "Without any assistance or guidance from you..."

It's a "number" isn't it? Like a musical.

The other aspect of Perry's adaptation is casting -- an often-overlooked aspect of the process. Devine, Newton, Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Perry stalwart Kimberly Elise are first-rate. Especially surprising is Macy Gray's solo turn as a philosophical abortionist. Janet Jackson tries valiantly and Whoopi Goldberg seems to be so tuned in to her character's craziness that she appears to be playing the role with aluminum foil tucked into her headgear. But to the extent this film works, a large measure is owing to the skill of his best actors.

Acting is at the heart of Jack Goes Boating (2010) directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman from a very slight play from a screenplay by the playwright (Robert Glaudini) which barely acknowledges there is any issue at all in adaption. Heightened language is NOT a problem for this piece. The play is evidently jammed into one of those apartments in which the living room, dining room and kitchen are a single unarticulated space, which is handy for theater, but claustrophobic on film. The purpose of this compression seems to have been to precipitate the explosion between the second couple in the story who are played, in a bit of generosity by director Phillip Seymour Hoffman, by the actors who originated the roles on stage, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega. The problem is that the whole scene is far overheated in comparison with the rest of this rather quiet film.

The romance-between-lonely-losers has been enshrined since at least 1955's Marty and not many have improved on that model. And although Hoffman seems to have been intent on transferring the play in as close to its original form, it is at its best when it makes its greatest departures, most notably the casting the Amy Ryan (of Win Win), who has become the go-to gal of independent film this season. In this very awkward set-up first date, the talk seems to have gone to death almost immediately. (Sorry about the ad here.)

And here Hoffman collaborates with both Ryan and some snow to make movie magic.

But the best movie-movie scenes arise from Jack's swimming lessons. He has promised Connie he will take her boating when the warm weather comes, and imagery flows from that. He imagines Central Park Lake awash in happy boaters. And he imagines himself not swimming, but floating, like a chubby angel in a wet firmament. Most interesting and puzzling is a moment when Jack, waiting for his friend to arrive for the listen, sees an old legless man lowered into the pool. Clearly, this was not a moment in the play. It is curious, undiscussed and unexplained. Is Jack a man without legs, who cannot move without help from others? Is the water there to liberate him and make him independent? Who knows. But that picture made better poetry than all of Mr. Glaudini's rather flat and routine words.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Humor Risk

Wild Target (2010) is rather a standard issue British black comedy, an aesthetic which posits death as the ultimate cosmic joke. Based on a film by French people, who first discovered black comedy and then wrote long boring essays about it quoting Hegel, who, you should know, is not funny at all. But then humor is not funny to the French, or else they would not admire Jerry Lewis, who makes movies that look as if they might be funny, or are planning to be funny in the near future, but somehow never quite get there.

Anyway, Wild Target is rife with stray bullets and inconvenient dead bodies and is funny like a mousse is tasty. Really enjoyable right now, but it just doesn't stay with you. Everybody involved does a good job until some git insists that the story have "an emotional through-line" which is an idea usually confined to Hollywood development executives. So we are meant to care about the heartaches of a middle-aged hitman, and only the fact that the role is played by the estimable Bill Nighy makes it tolerable.

But the worst failure is the failure of nerve over the central joke - we all die - and the compounding joke that our death doesn't matter to anyone, other than a very small core of family and friend. Our death will do nothing to stem the vast tides of life washing over everybody, and our greatest responsibility upon dying is to get the hell out of the way. But those who die in Wild Target are either unknown or of no consequence, which completely vitiates the power of the joke. So all the film earns is a few quick gasps of surprise at the outset, and then it settles into an everyday screwball romantic comedy, surrendering any claims it had to being audacious or unique.

Moreover, the film asks us to accept that being a hired political assassin can be a long-term occupation, handed down from one generation to the next and permitting a quiet upper middle-class existence, which might be intended to increase our identification with the central character, whereas the sheer unreality of the idea has the opposite effect.

Four Lions (2010), on the other hand, dares all and reaps the reward of that risk. Although the principal characters are ethnic Arabs raised and living in London (and don't all Americans love seeing brown and black people with those cute London accents?) they are people with jobs and families and in one case, hopes for his children. They seem to have drifted into jihad in order to find greater purpose in their lives and, most importantly, to form fraternal bonds that root their lives. That is, the film is coated with a surface of political satire, but at its heart it is, as its director describes it "The Hangover with bombs."

Some of the humor follows traditional British verbal satirical tropes, as in the character of Barry, a non-Arab former reactionary who has (mis) read the Koran, converted himself, become radicalized in much the manner of Life of Brian's People's Front of Palestine. Here's Barry making a video:

But, as it must in a comedy about terrorism (those are odd words to type), the joke has to go past words. Here's our first inkling of things to come:

The would-be bomber, Faisal, undergoes some cosmic justice for this insult to the animal kingdom. In fact, this very joke keeps spiraling up and up, finally past the point of humor, which is, ultimately why Four Lions might be called transcendent. It is not afraid of how big a joke it's making, and sees it to its logical conclusion; although not in a joking way. After all, these men do have real lives, real families and real grievances, though they be clueless as to how to address those grievances, both politically and practically. The mock-doc style -- improvisation-type acting (although reportedly there was little real improv on the set), jittery camera work, sharp editing all bolster the film's roots in reality.

Personally, it's a mode I think comedy should always aspire to -- you laugh and laugh and laugh until you are made uneasy about what you've been laughing at. Because laughter is distance, and by implication, cruelty and condescension.

Which is a natural attitude to adopt toward K. Roth Binew, the central character of The Living Wake (2007). This may be the most deliberately eccentric movie of the first decade of the century -- it certainly seems to be aiming for that distinction.* And in pursuit of that goal, the risks it takes are tremendous, the results mixed, but not without some successes.

Binew is a self-proclaimed artist who is about to die of a deliberately vague fairy-tale movie disease and spends his remaining time settling scores and preparing his own send-off. His concept of creativity is to hand-create a terrible morbid story "for children" and then insert the book onto the shelves of the local library, where he delivers the story itself in person:

The film takes place in some odd made-up New Englandy world in which no one lives but the characters in the story (a hallmark of ultra low-budget filmmaking). But whether or not it was an economic necessity, the strange Mr. Binew is deprived of any sort of context. Yes, he is part of a small circle of lunatics, including a bitterly hated rival (played by the immortal Eddie Peppitone) who rides by flinging slices of ham steak to demonstrate his contempt for Binew. The isolation is unnerving. (There is a scene with a psychic that looks as though the shots had been grabbed when the crew discovered an abandoned shack.)

The result is reminiscent of those well-intentioned low-budget film versions of plays such as Godspell or works of the American Film Theater in which film adaptation consists solely of taking the sparsely populated closed universe of the play and putting it against a grand landscape, which only amplifies the artificiality, rather than vitiating it. And if the characters are whimsical or eccentric, then there is almost nothing the film medium can do to lend plausibility or identification to such a narrative. The Living Wake treads the line between a determined piece of outsider humor and a "hey-let's-get-our-crazy-friends-together-and-make-a-movie" ethos.

Here's an example of the home movie sort of whimsey that the film not only lapses into, but is virtually built on:

Yes it's funny, but it's theatrical, and sketch-oriented, rather than being a sustainable arc of character-based satire. The Living Wake is funny, but perhaps it should not be watched in a single sitting. Broken up into 10 or 15 minute chunks, this might be one of the funniest films of its decade.

Like it or not, you can't deny it's brave, and for that it deserves more praise than the cautious faux-noir humor of a Wild Target.
* The film is available on both Hulu and Netflix streaming, so you can easily test my assertions against your own assessment.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April is National Poetry Month... celebrate by seeing Howl (2010) -- but NOT IN YOUR CLASSROOM. The movie, like the poem is most definitely NSFS or W, but it is the best film I've ever seen to enter into a poem and inhabit it. Frankly, I can't think of another that even tries.

This clip, which is from YouTube, and therefore IS safe for work (though probably blocked at school), is nicely representative of the film. It begins with James Franco as Ginsberg talking first about himself, and then about his creative process, admitting that the sense and meaning of a given verse is not readily apparent even to him at first, that the meanings and patterns emerge as the poem develops, or after it is finished, or maybe not even after that. Those are clearly for the audience, not for the artist, who, at his best, is in direct contact with his subconscious.

Then the clip moves to one of the wonderful animated segments which form a contrapuntal interpretation of the poem. As you see, they do not directly illustrate the words, but run in parallel with them, and frequently illuminate them. For me, the animation lends a cohesion that is difficult to find in the poem at first hearing. Some might argue that they are limiting, but it is not necessary to watch this animation to enjoy the poem "Howl." You can walk always walk away from the film and pick up a book and read the poem. Meanwhile this film is out there to entice skittish filmgoers into the strange and familiar universe of "Howl."

For the sake of the general audience, the film takes the form of a courtroom drama, based on a criminal charge of obscenity lodged against the poem. the filmmakers have promised that all the dialogue in the film is documented. In the court, they are taken from transcripts; otherwise they are taken from letters, memoirs and interviews. The conservative Republican judge evidently had no real difficulty in dismissing the charges, especially since the prosecutor seemed to want to turn the proceedings into a hearing on the literary merits of the poem, i.e., it should be banned because it is dirty AND bad.

But the movie is not meant to be biographical or even purely documentary in nature. Its principal thrust seems to be to convey the energy and excitement of "Howl" as a work. It is a bit like those symphonies that are based on a novel, or a painting of a mThe yth, or a song about a painting. It is art celebrating art, but that does not make it derivative, except in the most literal since. The film Howl might not be as original as its source poem, but it is an independent, original piece of art, and for me anyway, got me engaged about modern free verse poetry all over again.

It reminded me somewhat of Seraphine (2009), another story of an artist, this one a naive, outsider artist in France in the early 20th century, whose visions seemed to arrive directly from another planet without the artist's intercession.

The artist was an uneducated scrubwoman who, without any apparent outside stimulus or encouragement, began scrounging natural materials to make paint from and flat surfaces to paint on, to record the complex and baroque visions she had based on visual motifs taken from the natural world. She painted plants and flowers yes, but plants and flowers with an Escher-like paradoxically unnatural naturalness never seen in the real world. She ascribed the visions to the guiding hand of her guardian angel. She was discovered by a painter-collector-dealer, had a brief vogue, yet continued working and developing regardless of the size or prestige of her audience. She was as happy painting for her friends and neighbors as for the international art cognescenti.

In this clip, Seraphine reveals some of her larger, more complex canvases to trusted friends. At this point the film starts to climb inside her work, as though despairing of ever getting insider her head. (Please forgive the ad up front, the clip is worth it. And do yourself a favor and expand the video to the full screen.)

This film is far more of a character portrait than Howl, which is perverse, given that Seraphine is far less articulate and far more unfathomable than Allen Ginsberg. But like Howl, the net result of the film is a view of the world as if from inside the art. It's worth the trip.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Year of Melissa Leo?

Nobody was very surprised when Melissa Leo won the Academy Award earlier this year for playing a maternal shrew in The Fighter. But would you be surprised to learn that she turned in two completely different performances in other features released in 2010?

In Welcome to the Rileys (2010), Leo plays Lois, a timid housewife who has become frightened and agoraphobic over guilt surrounding her teenage daughter's death. Over the course of the film, Lois who slowly overcomes her fears and returns to the world of the living. Not only this woman nothing like the harridan in The Fighter, but Leo delivers a master class in physical acting. In the clip I wish I could show you, Lois has arrived in New Orleans where her husband Doug (James Gandolfini) appears to have shacked up with a 17-year-old stripper, Mallory (Kristen Stewart). What she doesn't know yet is that Doug has taken it on himself to parent this lost child, not sleep with her. They quarrel in the street and Doug hands her the car keys and tells her to go back to their home in Indiana in which she had trapped herself.

There follows a wordless 60 seconds or so in which the camera steps back, almost across the street to observe Lois preparing herself to meet this urchin, wringing her wrist, touching at her collar, fiddling with her purse, but what you see is not a grab-bag of actor fidgeting, but a woman making a decision and making up her mind to carry it out. Everyone studying acting or directing needs to see it.

Couldn't find that clip, but here is a good scene of bonding between Lois and Mallory, as you can see Melissa Leo listening to and participating in this conversation, while another tape, a tape of a happy life she lost, is playing in her head. It's called subtext, kids, and nobody makes it palpable better than Ms. Leo. In any case, it's a world away from the ferocious virago of The Fighter.

Her role in Conviction (2010) is smaller, but the Charlie Chan rule applies, whereby an important actor is never in an insignificant role, even if they only appear briefly early in the film. (The Charlie Chan rule stipulates that the best known character actor is always the murderer, no matter the clues. Its corollary is that important actors have important functions in the film. Often it means that they will be back later in the film, when their true significance is revealed.) In this scene, Leo makes the initial arrest of Sam Rockwell's character. You can see this is nothing like Lois, and even with an East Massachusetts accent, this is an entirely different person from the one she plays in The Fighter. (In fact, the accent itself is different from the one used in The Fighter.)

Turns out the character has her own demons and secrets, despite being a minor part of the story, and that's why you need a Melissa Leo in a role with only four or five short scenes.

That's three utterly different characters with three different affects all released in a single calendar year. And none of them resemble her work in Frozen River or her neurotic and driven detective in the late lamented and completely wonderful television series Homicide.

(As for the rest of Conviction, it is a perfectly straightforward television-film-based-on-a-true-story. It is directed by actor Tony Goldwyn, so it is almost entirely actor oriented, and anyone who has attended law school and most people who follow appellate cases in the news will be unsurprised by any of the plot developments. The best description of such a film is "worthy.")

The problem with "secret weapon" actors like Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Frances McDormand and J.K. Simmons is that they stop being secret. Some become less effective -- it is arguable that James Gandolfini will never shake Tony Soprano. But many of them go merrily along, either assisting or stealing films outright. And some, such as Kevin Spacey, William H Macy, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Tilda Swinton become stars in their own strange galaxy, occasionally visiting the Land of Regular People, and then returning to where the rest of us live. Hooray.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Just Cause or "jus' cuz"

2010 saw two new entries in what I might call the "pre-gunpowder conflict" genre. Centurion (2010) is one of those all-CGI-all-the-time epics that allows one to gouge and maim characters with mad abandon and without angering the actors' unions. The real problem is that if you like this sort of thing, you can get it right in the comfort of your own home torture chamber and abbatoir, courtesy of the Spartacus series on Starz (also on DVD and Netflix streaming).

But aside from its lack of uniqueness (coupled with lack of originality or quality performance, either in technical or non-technical categories), the truly fatal aspect of Centurion is that it tries to make Roman centurions into heroes.

William Goldman says nobody knows anything and there may not be any rules in art, but still I say: UNWANTED INVADERS ARE NEVER THE HEROES. Not even if all their friends are killed, not even if they're helpless and unarmed and turned into quarry for an implacable killing machine, who is part of the native troops. Natives = good; invaders = bad. Maybe this wasn't true back in the 1930s and 1940s when we thought the British Empire was cool, but those days are long gone. I don't care if the invaders are played by the offspring of George Clooney and Brad Pitt -- Invaders Are Bad. So when the Picts pronounce a death sentence on the Romans, we don't say, "Oh goodness, how will those poor Romans get out of there?" We say, "Good, die you miserable arrogant Romans." And don't forget, Romans were played by snooty English actors all through the 50s and 60s while Americans played the denizens of Palestine or whatever the local area was, so we were conditioned -- Romans are cruel, greedy and jerks. And when they're invading -- Hey, remember when the British tried to invade in 1775-6? Remember how much we liked that? And nowadays Brits don't even like Brits.

Centurion was doomed before the first camera turned. A terrible idea terribly executed.

Robin Hood (2010) was dead on arrival, but for slightly different reasons. It's not a bad movie, but it's Not A Robin Hood Movie. What's a Robin Hood movie? Oh, you know -- trickery, derring-do, thumbing the nose and cocking a snoot at entrenched power. Robin Hood is the proto-American Tax Rebel. He is clever, he is crafty. He tricks the Sheriff and his foolish henchmen, woos the Maid Marian, uses disguises, subterfuges and generally outwits power. What's more, he uses what he gets to help people who really need it -- honest, hard-working folk who have been sucked dry by the powers that be and need a little leg-up to keep their heads above water. What red-blooded Murkin doesn't love that story? I think this is an area where most of us can agree -- the guy who Sticks It To The Man and Does Justice is Awesome.

But somebody let a bunch of Brits and Ozzies make a Robin Hood movie and They Don't Get It. This is particularly appalling in the case of the Ozzie in Question, as he is Mr. Rebel, the Gladiator Who Will Not Take Crap From Anybody, Russell Crowe. I assume he did this picture because he owed somebody money. Maybe it was a tax problem. (That would be appropriate. But NOT ironic, OK?)

Because 3/4s of this movie is an attempt at an origin story, and an establishment-oriented one at that. First, our hero is an archer for the king, then things go wrong, he assumes the identity of some nobleman, pretends to be married to Cate Blanchett and all the time everyone is running around with big crossbows and swords and maces and nobody is hiding in a tree, ambushing a nobleman, pulling off some big switcheroo. It's all big battle scenes and something about some traitor who's working for France, so the big climactic battle is all about defending England against France, and like I say, where are the people rebelling against the nobility? That's Robin Hood!

Look, you make all the medieval strategy and battle movies you want, but DON'T CALL THEM "ROBIN HOOD." Honestly, I find it impossible to critique this movie -- it's the usual Ridley Scott, the CGI has gotten a lot better since Gladiator and if you like movies where guys wear armor, have greasy beards and say "Aye" a lot, this is the picture for you.

But me, I'm sticking with Douglas Fairbanks and Erroll Flynn. Heck, they know how to have fun, which Russell Crowe NEVER does.

Monday, April 4, 2011

These kids nowadays sure do like them comic books.

If you don't know why this is funny, you're probably not going to enjoy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). Obviously, films have been based on comic books since at least the late 1930's (comic books were only invented in the mid-30s; before then, movies were based on newspaper comics like "Li'l Abner" and "Dagwood.") And films have borne the video game influence since at least the first Tron, back during the Reagan administration. But Scott Pilgrim, based on a series of graphic novels about characters who are avid gamers, makes a substantial attempt to incorporate game-style storytelling into the narrative flow of the film. It's not just the sound or energy lines shooting out of Scott's band when they play, or the "Pow" and "Bif" words floating out of the punches -- heck, we had that on the Batman TV show back in 1966. It's the actual use of the ideas of scores and levels embedded in the scenes that feels innovative. Here's the scene in which what had seemed like another alternate indie-romance-comedy with Michael Cera begins to spin out into something quite different.

And they've dropped the tired old joke of the wimpy hero getting the stuffing knocked out of him (which might be why Kick-Ass eventually ran out of gas for all the fun along the way). Moreover, while this set-up -- hero must defeat seven villains sequentially -- sounds limited and formulaic, the screenplay has the good sense to continue working it out in different ways.

But one's reaction to the film is going to depend on one's feelings about its references. I'm not keen on film references to contemporary culture. Robin Williams' self-congratulatory riffs make Aladdin really dated today (William F. Buckley wasn't even hip back then). But Scott Pilgrim is built entirely on sharing a specific private language with its intended audience, and a lot of the criticism online is about it having too much DDR and not enough Halo. The movie keeps saying, "We know movies are for old people, but really, we're one of you -- we're game-playing, comic-book reading kids, too!" And given the professed artificiality in the story-telling; or at least the adoption of more stylized narrative conventions than even film uses, the question is raised, can one be made to care for a character, who is literally a flat image on a page, or a cluster of pixels?

But just as Brecht and Orson Welles and other experimenters in meta- style have proven, a character who is self-aware about his fate and communicates that awareness with the audience can be sympathetic nonetheless. Here, the film has it both ways: it calls attention to the conventions of story-telling and character development, yet lets you feel the triumph inherent in the situation (I'm thinking specifically of what happens at 0:07 of this clip):

It's possible that this is all a narrative dead-end, but I have to admit that in this case, the ride was a great deal of fun.

RED (2010) represents a more straightforward and traditional adaptation of the graphic novel, discarding the conventions which are unique to that form in favor of those shared by comics AND movies. It is pretty much a straight-down-the-middle action comedy of the type that star Willis and free-lance lunatic Mel Gibson used to crank out in the 80s, except that the protagonists have crept into their 60s and the action is pumped up to what used to be called "cartoonish" levels, except here "cartoonish" goes up past 11 to a 13. Most people don't think you need a rocket launcher to dispose of a single human being about 30 or 40 feet away from you. And it turns out not to be a good idea.

Evidently, the source graphic novel was darker and grimmer than this and the producer peddled that idea for a few years before deciding to turn it into a romp. The result is a creative boomerang, medium-wise. Film introduces multiple angles, low key lighting, rapid changes of scene, terse dialogue. Comic books follow suit, but in bright primary colors, especially in the Silver Age. Neo-noir becomes popular with films like Body Heat and L.A. Confidential and comics respond with The Black Knight and Sin City; those products are adapted to film with mixed commercial and aesthetic results. Neo-noir graphic novel RED is unsuccessfully peddled for adaptation, it is eventually transformed into a movie-movie, with no real influence from either the source graphic novel or the comic book as a medium. The principal influence on the film RED is the desire to sell more popcorn.

It does have fun with the archetypes that the cast brings with them. Here is Queen Elizabeth Helen Mirren slipping off the pumps and slipping on the work shoes:

And in a misguided attempt to make the film resemble human life, Bruce Willis is given a love interest half his age (take that Demi!) played by the usually enticing Mary Louise Parker, who in this film seems to think she might win an award if her character exhibits enough brain damage, so as to completely lack common sense. Hence some phony campy byplay with Mary and Helen exchanging girl talk between automated rounds:

Would that they had not tried.

Both films are very fine weekend-evening rentals, both are light as a feather, but the contrast between them in subject matter, style and the seriousness or non-seriousness of life, death and love illustrates a generational split much larger than what kind of comic books people like.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madame Tussaud School of Film

A film like Nowhere Boy (2010), the John Lennon portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man film requires the viewer to bring a picture of the artist to the film with them: the filmmakers haven't time for that. But the question is never resolved, and barely even raised as to what the crisis depicted in the film means to the artist and his body of work, which in turn raises the question of the purpose of the film.

In essence, Nowhere Boy is a lower-middle-class kitchen sink family drama of the type Britain started producing in the era of Lennon's young adulthood, the late 50s and early 60s. It is the battle between two sisters about how to live one's life, how to raise a child and how to show love. John's mother Julia is what might euphemistically be called a "free spirit" who was not committed to parenting when he was born. It has fallen to her older, conventional, "responsible" older sister Mimi to raise the boy. Then, in a scene reminiscent of the opening of Kazan's East of Eden, John is invited to walk a few blocks to meet his mother.

The rest of the film settles into a sort-of triangle with John's devotion to rock and roll pushed into the spiritual background. And that is the tug-of-war that pulls this film apart, both from itself and from the audience. Because we want the Beatles. To want to see a film about John Lennon is to want to spend a little more time with the Beatles. But neither the screenwriters have figured how to integrate the development of the Quarrymen with John's choices between freedom and safety as represented by his mother and his aunt, even though such a conflict would seem to be easily extended. In time Paul and George would become as formidable rivals to Mimi as Julia had been, but Nowhere Boy never goes down that road, and the Beatles remain a sideshow in a story which should have pointed to them inevitably.

Curiously, the film does not even attempt to limn the spirit-crushing grey dullness of the rations-and-rubble world of post-war England, as contrasted with, say An Education, in which the heroine's bad choices are driven as much by the constrictions of the greater world of England as by her own family's misplaced priorities. Thus, we miss what a big thing it is for John to attend a private school, to receive a guitar, and then a better one, given the general tightness of money and resources. (His fellow Beatles always scoffed at John's pretensions to working class status, albeit this film demonstrates that the middle class is just as proficient at forging broken families.)

Given that he never has to portray the well-known public John Lennon, Aaron Johnson is free to just be a conflicted and troubled teenager. Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen have no such flexibility as the respective title characters of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2010), a film no more imaginative than its generic title. Despite a promising opening depicting the famous riot at the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," Stravinsky and Chanel are quickly covered in wax by the filmmakers, and we not only don't get a sense of their personalities, it becomes dubious that they even have personalities. Chanel seems to be "about" being cool and unflappable. Stravinsky seems to have acquired a wife and many many children without his knowledge and participation, and has no relationship with them whatsoever. Chanel and Stravinsky are naked at the same time and appear to be having sex although they do not seem to have a relationship other than hostess and houseguest. It is as if the film was made by off-world aliens who observed that humans enjoy proximity but had not bothered to observe why. It is true that Chanel and Stravinsky are known to history as fairly cold characters, but this entire film is an iceberg itself, concealing whatever potential drama there might have been under a ton of costumes, locations and production design. I can't imagine who the intended audience is for Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky; perhaps robots taking an art appreciation course.

I suppose I should offer some observations or analysis of the technique of the film, or perhaps some interesting moment in it, but at this moment, a few days after seeing the film I can remember literally nothing about it to observe. So let's move on, shall we?

Friday, April 1, 2011

A brilliant blend of cinema elements

I've finally had the opportunity to see a film I've been after for over 40 years, the original 106-minute version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, a variation on the Faust legend which has been traveling around in 99- and 84-minute versions as All That Money Can Buy, which isn't that bad a title. Having finally seen it, I'm wondering if I shouldn't substitute it for the rather chilly Citizen Kane as a demonstration of how the elements of classical studio-style filmmaking could be orchestrated for a stunning and complex total effect.

That would make particular sense since so many key Kane craftsmen were involved in DADW, including editor Robert Wise, sound recordist James G. Stewart, effects artist Vernon Walker, and most critically, composer Bernard Herrman, here earning an Academy Award for his second film ever. Cinematography is by veteran Joe August rather than renegade Gregg Toland, but August has clearly absorbed Toland's lessons in deep focus and strong sources, added to a penchant for chiarascuro already evident in August's career.

Exhibit A, the entrance of the devil, known as Scratch, from an unidentified source so bright and smoky as to suggest a back entrance to Hell. His musical accompaniment is an electronic distortion of a recording of wind stirring some humming high-voltage wiring -- extremely avant for the Spring of 1941 when it was filmed. Add to that the unemphatic fire effects of Mr. Walker and you have one of the devil's best film entrances in film history:

Notice the daring rapidity of Wise's cut at 2:23, harking back to silent film technique. Speaking of rapid cuts, check out this sequence as the Devil's seduction advances at a country dance. Scratch has provided the hero with a new seductive housemaid in the person of Simone Simon, whose film entrance is kneeling in front of a hearth that looks as though it were a portal to sulfurous fires somewhere below. Here he is tempted to dance with her in order to hold her body, while the Devil fiddles to a hellish mix of a four different recordings of the same violinist improvising to "Pop Goes The Weasel." Again, Wise goes to town, especially starting at 1:09 in this clip.

Take that, Charlie Daniels!

The supernatural elements, work of Wise, Stewart and Walker and the career-rescuing performance of Simone Simon also point the film forward toward the low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton later in the 1940s, such as Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With A Zombie, especially in its use of suggestion and dark and light. (Lewton upped the ante with his use of off-screen sound to dramatize the unseen.)

The film is co-written by Stephen Vincent Benet, based on his own story. Benet was popular in the 20s and 30s for his use of American folklore to reflect on then-contemporary themes. The result for this film is an unparalleled mix of Americana, surrealism, theatricality, mysticism, horror and Christian myth. That might seem like an unpalatable mix, or at least a rather lumpy stew, but the result is completely coherent, moving easily from Daniel Webster's lecture about freedom to the hero's son straight into his pleading to a jury of the damned including Blackbeard and Benedict Arnold for the soul of the hero.

The only flaw in the film is the unfortunate necessity of substituting the incomparable Thomas Mitchell, who was injured in an on-set accident, with the more limited Edward Arnold, who despite best intentions, and whether through his own shortcomings or our memory of his other roles as a slimy business comes over as a bit greasy and pontificating for the role of Webster, who is meant to be well-educated but homespun (a stand-in for Lincoln, who was a very popular character in Depression culture). But despite Webster's titular billing, he is not central to the film, and Arnold is adequate, not terrible and does not demolish the film.

Let's leave the last word to actor Walter Huston, director William Dieterle (best known to me for being fired from The Adventures of Robin Hood for working too slowly) and most of all, Bernard Herrman, who really gets to show off his vivacious and sharp-elbowed musical voice in this final moment of the film, as Scratch considers his next "customer." The music looks forward to Herrman's classic Hitchcock scores, the iris-out looks backwards toward D.W. Griffith, and Huston's gaze into the viewer's eyes must have been bone-chilling projected on movie screens in 1941.