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.